Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) & FAPE
by Pete Wright, Esq. and Pamela Wright, MA, MSW
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IDEA includes two fundamental requirements: that the child will receive a
free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive
The least restrictive environment (LRE) requirement is often referred
to as "mainstreaming." What
does least restrictive environment mean? What is the purpose of the
Under what circumstances can school districts place children with disabilities
in separate special education programs where they are segregated from
children who are not disabled?
Florence County v. Carter: Mainstreaming Policy
the Act, mainstreaming is a policy to be pursued so long as it is consistent
with the Act’s primary goal of providing disabled students with an appropriate
education. Where necessary for educational reasons, mainstreaming assumes
a subordinate role in formulating an educational program. See Rowley
. . . In any event, the Act’s preference for mainstreaming was aimed
at preventing schools from segregating handicapped students from the
general student body . . ."
Loudon County: Educational Benefit v. Mainstreaming Preference
In 1997, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned
a favorable decision in an inclusion case, Mark
Hartmann v. Loudon County.
The Court found that mainstreaming or inclusion is secondary to the
need to provide a free appropriate education from which the child receives
"The mainstreaming provision represents recognition of the value
of having disabled children interact with non-handicapped students.
The fact that the provision only creates a presumption, however, reflects
a congressional judgment that receipt of such social benefits is ultimately
a goal subordinate to the requirement that disabled children receive
"... the IDEA’s mainstreaming provision establishes a presumption,
not an inflexible federal mandate. Under its terms, disabled children
are to be educated with children who are not handicapped only "to the
maximum extent appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(5)(B). Section 1412(5)(B)
explicitly states that mainstreaming is not appropriate "when the nature
or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes
with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily."
20 U.S.C. § 1412(5)(B); see also Rowley,
458 U.S. at 181 n.4."
In Hartmann, the Court held that:
" . . . we specifically held that mainstreaming is inappropriate
when "the handicapped child is a disruptive force in the non-segregated
setting." 882 F.2d at 879 (quoting Roncker v. Walter, 700 F.2d
1058, 1063 (6th Cir. 1983)). In this case, disruptive behavior
was clearly an issue."
v. Kingwood Township: Continuum of Placements
v. Kingwood Township (NJ), U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third
Circuit clarified "meaningful benefit" as the requirement to offer a "continuum
of placements," and the requirement to provide a "free appropriate education
(FAPE)" in the "least restrictive environment."
case involved N.R., a child who was found eligible for special education
services at age 3. The district developed an IEP that placed him in
a "hybrid" preschool program, described as "a single, half-day
preschool class composed of half disabled children and half non-disabled
children." His parents rejected the district's IEP and placed their child in a private preschool program.
"Significant Learning" & "Meaningful Educational
education disputes involve questions about FAPE and educational benefit.
v. Kingwood Township (NJ), the court clarified "educational
. . a satisfactory IEP must provide "significant learning" and
confer "meaningful benefit."
the Third Circuit discussed the LRE requirement:
least restrictive environment is the one that, to the greatest extent
possible, satisfactorily educates disabled children together with children
who are not disabled, in the same school the disabled child would attend
if the child were not disabled."
"We have interpreted this mandate to require that a disabled child be
placed in the least restrictive environment (hereinafter "LRE") that
will provide him with a meaningful educational benefit."
Provide FAPE in LRE?
districts have developed "hybrid" programs to provide special education
to young children with disabilities. A typical "hybrid" preschool program is designed to educate children with disabilities
in a class that includes some nondisabled or "typically developing" children.
(Note: In our experience, many "hybrid classes" are similar
to "self contained" special education classes.)
Circuit found that hybrid programs would not usually provide FAPE in
the least restrictive environment:
believe that, under the IDEA's strict mainstreaming requirement, a hybrid
preschool program like Kingwood's would ordinarily provide the LRE only
under two circumstances: first, where education in a regular classroom
(with the use of supplementary aids and services) could not be achieved
satisfactorily or, second, where a regular classroom is not available
within a reasonable commuting distance of the child.
the Act and regulations recognize that IEP teams must make individualized
decisions about the special education ... IDEA’s strong preference
that, to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities
be educated in regular classes with their nondisabled peers with appropriate
supplementary aids and services."
Continuum of Placement Options
The IEP must include "An explanation of the extent, if any, to which
the child will not participate with nondisabled children in the regular
class and in extracurricular and other nonacademic areas." 20 USC 1414(d)(1)(A)(i) (Wrightslaw:
Special Education Law, page 100)
Did the school district propose or attempt to educate N.R. in a regular classroom before they proferred the IEP that placed him in a hybrid program? According to the Court, "the record contains no indication that N.R. could not have been educated satisfactorily in a regular classroom."
Program Provided FAPE in LRE
concluded that the school district’s program and the private preschool
program provided FAPE. But the private preschool program went one step
further -- it provided FAPE in the least restrictive environment.
vacated the District Court’s holding that the public school placement
complied with the LRE requirement, and remanded the case back to that
Court for "additional proceedings." The Court
cited the Supreme Court's decision in Florence
County v. Shannon Carter and their earlier decision in Warren
G. v Cumberland Valley:
G. involved disputes over the FAPE requirement. They did not address
the situation we face in this case, where both the state-chosen (accredited)
school and the parent-chosen (unaccredited) school would provide an
FAPE, but where the unaccredited school would arguably provide a less
County School District IV v. Shannon Carter (U. S. Court
of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, 1991)
County School District IV v. Shannon Carter (U. S. Supreme
Hartmann v. Loudon County School Bd (U. S. Court of Appeals
for the Fourth Circuit, 1996)
v. Kingwood Township (U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, 2000) Decision in pdf
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Last revised: 01/02/09