Inclusion refers to the practice whereby students with disabilities are enrolled in general education classes and receive any needed special education services within that setting. Inclusion can be full or partial. In a full inclusion situation, students receive all educational services within the general education classroom, including their special education and related services, so that they are not removed from that environment. In a partial inclusion situation, students are removed from general education only when it is necessary so that they can receive needed special education services. This entry describes the background of inclusion and looks at pertinent judicial decisions.
The terms least restrictive environment, inclusion, and mainstreaming are often confused but are distinct. The difference between inclusion and mainstreaming is one of degree and philosophy. Mainstreaming refers to the practice of placing special education students in general education classes for a portion of the school day. Thus, when students are mainstreamed, their home base is the special education setting, and they are placed in general education to the maximum extent appropriate. On the other hand, in an inclusionary setting, the home base would be the general education classroom, and students would be removed only to the extent necessary to provide needed services. Least restrictive environment (LRE), on the other hand, is the legal term used in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA does not require inclusion in all cases, but it does mandate that all children with disabilities are to be educated in settings that are the least restrictive possible and that removal from general education is to occur only when absolutely necessary.
Insofar as many of the IDEA’s provisions are based on the concept that students with disabilities may be removed from the general education environment only to the extent necessary to provide needed special education services, one task for school administrators is to ascertain whether required services warrant removal from the general education environment or whether they can be provided in less restrictive settings. In the early days of the IDEA, most courts reviewing LRE issues determined that inclusion was not required for all students with disabilities but had to be provided, where appropriate, to the maximum extent feasible. Even so, in acknowledging the social benefits of inclusion, most courts felt that students should not be placed in general education solely for the sake of inclusion.
Related Court Cases
In balancing the need for specialized services against the LRE provision of the IDEA, a majority of early courts tipped the scales in favor of specialized services. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the LRE provision of the IDEA began to play a more prominent role in litigation over the proper placement for students with disabilities. Several courts departed from previous case law and began to tip the scales in favor of inclusive programming for students with severe disabilities.
In one case involving the placement of a student with Down syndrome, the federal trial court in New Jersey wrote that school boards have an affirmative obligation to consider placing students with disabilities in general education classrooms with the use of supplementary aids and services before exploring other alternatives (Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon School District, 1992, 1993). The court clearly stated that in order to meet the IDEA’s goals, school boards must maximize opportunities for inclusion. The court added that the preference for placements in the LRE can only be rebutted when school officials can show that students’ disabilities are so severe that they will receive little or no benefit from inclusion in regular classrooms, that they are so disruptive that the education of other students is impaired, or that the cost of providing supplementary services will have a negative effect on the provision of services to other children.
Further, the court suggested that school boards need to supplement and realign their resources to move beyond the systems, structures, and practices that tend to unnecessarily segregate students with disabilities. Finally, the court emphatically said that inclusion was a right, not a privilege for the select few. The Third Circuit affirmed, essentially adopting the trial court’s rationale, but it added that that the courts should consider the benefits that students with disabilities will receive in general education classrooms as opposed to segregated settings along with the possible negative effects that their inclusion could have on the education of other children. The appeals court agreed that a fundamental value of the right of a student with disabilities to an education is to associate with peers who do not have disabilities.
In another significant LRE decision, the Ninth Circuit combined elements of several other court decisions to provide an overall summary of a school board’s obligations regarding inclusion (Sacramento City Unified School District, Board of Education v. Rachel H., 1994). The Ninth Circuit confirmed that school officials must consider the following four factors when determining the LREs for students: (1) the educational benefits of placement in a regular classroom, (2) the nonacademic benefits of such a placement, (3) the effect a student would have on the teacher and other students in the class, and (4) the costs of inclusion.
As several courts have acknowledged, placement in an inclusionary setting is not always feasible. For example, in applying its own test, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that school officials could transfer a student with serious behavioral problems to an off-campus alternative program (Clyde K. v. Puyallup School District, 1994). The court approved the recommended transfer after discovering that the student’s disruptive behavior prevented him from learning in a general education setting and that he was receiving minimal nonacademic benefits from inclusion. The court was further persuaded by evidence that the student’s presence had a negative effect on the staff and other children in the general education setting. In later cases in which it approved segregated placements, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that inclusion that results in total failure is inappropriate (Capistrano Unified School District v. Wartenberg, 1995) and that some students may not derive any benefit from inclusion until they develop other skills (Poolaw v. Bishop, 1995).
Allan G. Osborne, Jr.
See also Least Restrictive Environment
- Capistrano Unified School District v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884 (9th Cir. 1995).
- Clyde K. v. Puyallup School District, 35 F.3d 1396 (9th Cir. 1994).
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.
- Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon School District, 789 F. Supp. 1322 (D.N.J. 1992), 801 F. Supp. 1393 (D.N.J. 1992), aff’d, 995 F.2d 1204 1009 (3d Cir. 1993).
- Poolaw v. Bishop, 67 F.3d 830 (9th Cir. 1995).