Least Restrictive Environment

One of the key mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is that all students with disabilities are to be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This requirement applies across the continuum of placement alternatives that a school board needs to maintain under the statute.

In particular, the IDEA requires states, and consequently school boards, to set up procedures ensuring that students with disabilities are educated to the maximum extent appropriate with children who do not have disabilities. The IDEA further directs that students with disabilities be placed in special classes or separate facilities, or otherwise be removed from the general education environment only when the nature or severity of their disabilities is such that instruction in general education classes cannot be achieved satisfactorily, even with supplementary aids and services. The IDEA’s LRE provisions relate to students who attend private schools, institutions, or other care facilities at public expense in addition to those who attend special education programs within the public schools. The IDEA’s LRE provisions are so intertwined with the statute’s requirement to provide a free appropriate public education that one is rarely mentioned without reference to the other.

Required Inclusion

In Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court stated that an appropriate education is one that is formulated pursuant to all of the IDEA’s procedures and is sufficient to confer some educational benefit on a student with disabilities. The Court added that the program provided to a student in a special education placement who attends school in a regular classroom setting should enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from one grade to the next.

In determining the least restrictive setting for a given student, school officials need to consider a variety of factors, including the student’s educational needs and social needs. Initial guidance in this regard was provided by several high-profile court cases. In two of these cases, federal appellate courts directed school boards to place students with disabilities in regular settings, as opposed to segregated special education classrooms. In both disputes, the courts insisted that educators must consider a variety of factors when formulating the LRE for children with disabilities.

In a case from New Jersey, Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon School District (1993), the Third Circuit adopted a two-part test, originally outlined by the Fifth Circuit in litigation from Texas (Daniel R. R. v. State Board of Education, 1989), for evaluating compliance with the IDEA’s LRE mandate. The first component of the test asks whether the child in question can be educated satisfactorily in a regular classroom with the use of supplementary aids and services. The second element of the test, which is applicable when a placement outside of the general education setting is necessary, asks whether the child will be placed to the maximum extent appropriate with children who are not disabled.

The Ninth Circuit in Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education v. Rachel H. (1994), a dispute from California, summarized the pronouncements of several courts when it stated that school officials must consider four factors in making LRE placements: the educational benefits of placing children with disabilities in regular classrooms, the nonacademic benefits of such placements, the effect that the presence of students with disabilities would have on teachers and other children in a class, and the costs of inclusionary placements. Each of these factors must be taken into account when placing students with disabilities in any educational program.

Approved Exceptions

Included in both the Oberti and Rachel H. opinions is the principle that school authorities must make reasonable efforts to place students with disabilities in inclusive settings by providing them with supplementary aids and services to ensure their success prior to considering more restrictive placements. Despite the emphasis on inclusion, not all students with disabilities are best placed in general education classes. Due to the nature or severity of their disabilities, many students are better served in more restrictive settings. Courts will approve segregated settings over parental objections when individualized educational (IEP) teams can show that students with disabilities cannot function in regular classrooms or will not receive educational benefit in such settings, even with the addition of supplementary aids and services (Beth B. v. Van Clay, 2002; Clyde K. v. Puyallup School District No. 3, 1994; Capistrano Unified School District v. Wartenberg, 1995). In one such situation, the federal trial court in New Hampshire recognized that an IEP calling for inclusion in some subjects was not suitable for a 15-year-old student who was reading on a first-grade level (Manchester School District v. Christopher B., 1992).

In essence, a placement in the general education setting should be the placement of choice, and a segregated setting should be considered only if a fully inclusive placement has failed despite the best efforts of educators or there is overwhelming evidence that it is not reasonable.

Allan G. Osborne, Jr.

See also Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley; Free Appropriate Public Education; Inclusion

Legal Citations

  • Beth B. v. Van Clay, 282 F.3d 493 (7th Cir. 2002). 
  • Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982). 
  • Capistrano Unified School District v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884 (9th Cir. 1995). 
  • Clyde K. v. Puyallup School District No. 3, 35 F.3d 1396 (9th Cir. 1994). 
  • Daniel R. R. v. State Board of Education, 874 F.2d 1036 (5th Cir. 1989). 
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. 
  • Manchester School District v. Christopher B., 807 F. Supp. 860, (D.N.H. 1992). 
  • Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon School District, 995 F.2d 1204 (3d Cir. 1993). 
  • Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education v. Rachel H., 14 F.3d 1398 (9th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 512 U.S. 1207 (1994).