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"Placement" and Least Restrictive Environment under the IDEA

"Placement" and Least Restrictive Environment under the IDEA

Many consider educational placement to be the actual physical location where a student receives their education. Under a federal law described as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the term placement has an altogether different meaning.

Under both the IDEA and Section 504, placement and least restrictive environment go hand in hand and are inextricably intertwined. Thus, a solid understanding of the LRE requirement is essential to understanding the placement process for students with disabilities.

If a student is eligible under the IDEA for special education and related services, school districts, and all local educational agencies (LEAs), are required to provide the student with a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) including placement within the individual student's least restrictive environment (LRE).

The IDEA requires that each public agency ensure that: To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if 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. 34 CFR 300.114 (a)(2).

Below is a very basic diagram of the placement/LRE spectrum.


(1) General Education-->(2) General Education w/ Related Services -->(3) SDC (M/M or M/S) --> (4) NPS -->(5) RTC -->(6) HHI

General Education Placement:

General Education Placement is also often referred to as mainstreaming. It is where the general population receives their education in a public school setting. Students who are not eligible for special education under the IDEA receive their education without any added supports/services, however, may sometimes qualify for Section 504 accommodations.

General Education Placement with Related Services:

If a student is found eligible for special education and related services under the IDEA, and they are able to access an appropriate education in the general education environment, with perhaps the addition of some related services, then a general education placement is their least restrictive environment because they will be interacting with their typically developing peers, and will theoretically still be receiving an appropriate education with the added support of the related services.

Some examples of related services might be specialized academic instruction (SAI), also referred to as resource specialist program (RSP) support services. There are typically two different models of RSP support in a General Education Setting: either push in or pull out. With a push in model, a teacher with special education credentials will come into the student's classroom and provide SAI to the student during regular class time. With a pull out model, the student will be pulled out of the regular classroom for a certain amount of time per week and be provided with specialized academic instruction in a separate classroom, typically within the same school.

Depending on the individual student's needs, some other examples of related services might be speech and language services, occupational therapy services, physical therapy services, deaf and hard of hearing services, assistive technology services, behavioral services, counseling, or educationally related mental health services.

Special Day Classes (SDC):

Special Day Classes (SDCs) are placements typically within a public school where a student would receive their education in a smaller classroom with an instructor who has a special education credential. The teacher to student ratio is usually much smaller and there are often one or more teachers' aides in the class such that each student would receive additional adult attention combined with fewer students in the classroom.

There are different types of SDCs and each school district tends to offer different options as far as the focus of the SDC. Most districts tend to have, at a minimum, two types of SDCs. The least restrictive of the two is generally referred to as a mild to moderate (M/M) SDC. The more restrictive of the two is generally referred to as a moderate to severe (M/S) SDC.

Different school districts offer many different types of SDCs. Some districts have SDCs specific to Autism (especially for the earlier grades), some have SDCs specific to speech and language issues, specific learning disabilities, emotional disturbance issues, or adaptive skills deficits, for example.

Nonpublic School (NPS) Placement:

An NPS in California, is a school certified by the California Department of Education which provides specialized academic instruction to students for the entire school day, and is located separate and apart from a public school. Students who require NPS placement in order to access a FAPE, tend to have significant needs which cannot be addressed within the less restrictive environment of a public school. School districts/LEAs are required to fund such a placement when an IEP team decides that a student cannot access a FAPE in the public school setting.

There are many different types of NPSs and each has their own focus in terms of the type of student they cater to. Some examples are NPSs that specialize in Autism programs, Emotional Disturbance Programs, Intellectually Disabled programs, Deaf and Hard of Hearing programs, programs for Blind students, and students with Orthopedic Impairments. Regardless of the type of NPS, such a placement is considered the same in terms of LRE.

Residential Treatment Center (RTC):

An RTC is a typically a campus which provides both academic instruction, as well as housing, for students who have been unable to access a FAPE within a less restrictive environment. Students who require an RTC placement in their IEP usually have significant maladaptive behaviors which prevent them from acquiring an appropriate education at a public school or a NPS. RTC placements are considered one of the most restrictive placements on the LRE spectrum.

In California, if a student requires an RTC placement, they will typically be educated out-of-state where different RTCs are located in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Texas, for example. Of course, each RTC specializes in providing an environment which caters to different types of students who suffer from different types of behavioral issues.

Home Hospital Instruction (HHI):

HHI placement is generally considered the most restrictive environment for students. HHI is typically a situation where a student is unable to access an appropriate education within one of the above-mentioned placements, and must receive academic instruction within their home.

Students with HHI placement are often students with serious and debilitating medical conditions which do not allow them to leave the house every day for medical reasons. HHI placement is considered the most restrictive environment because the placement does not allow for interaction with any peers during each school day or otherwise. 

-Elizabeth Curtis, Esq.

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