Many factors must be considered before determining the educational placement of a student with a disability. However, Heumann and Hehir (2004) identifies the relationship between Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) requirements to the IEP process as a key factor (IDEA, 2004). Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the student’s IEP forms the basis for the student’s placement decision. Through the filter of federal law, policies, and procedures, the IEP must document, evaluate, and consider the student’s present level of academic achievement and functional performance (IDEA, 2004). Therefore, the student’s present level of academic achievement and functional performance is arguably the greatest factor in determining a student’s educational placement.
The least restrictive environment (LRE) mandate is key requirement for educating children with disabilities under IDEA (2004). This mandate states:
To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities…are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily [Sec 612(a)(5)(A)].
Interpretations of the meaning of least restrictive environment vary in special education. These beliefs range from those that view the regular education classroom in a student’s neighborhood school as always the least restrictive environment (LRE) for all students, to those that advocate for a full continuum of program placements (Crockett & Kauffman, 1999). Prior to 2000, the overriding emphasis for determining the LRE for students with special needs focused placement decisions on the “where” rather than the “how” of the “instruction that should be taught” (Crockett & Kauffman, 1999, p. 1). It is now ethical and reasonable to accept “the environment in which all the needs of a student are best met, where the student acquires the greatest benefits from the educational program” (Curry & Hatlen, 1988, p. 420) is the least restrictive and thereby most appropriate environment.
The most enabling placement is one in which the student has the opportunity to fully participate in all aspects of the school experience including acquisition of special skills, thereby providing an academic, social, and emotional environment that encourages a holistic development in preparation for life. The issue is the quality of education provided within a particular placement as measured by the degree to which specific, unique needs…can be met
(Hazekamp & Huebner, 1989, p. 1).
Explicating the general approach for determining student placement, Riley (2000) identifies how the IEP team of a student who is found eligible for special education services, must first consider if the student can be provided with an appropriate education in a regular education classroom with the services already there. If not, then the IEP team moves through increasingly more “restrictive” settings, whereby subsequent consideration are on settings that become increasingly more segregated from non-eligible peers. These settings may range from the regular education classroom with supplementary aids and service, to a slightly more segregated setting with the services embedded, to a more segregated setting modified with supplementary aids and services.
Therefore, the most appropriate educational environment for an individual student with a disability must be based on the student’s needs as grounded in his or her present level of academic achievement and functional performance, as determined through the educational team’s instructional and assessment processes and then specified in the IEP. Depending on the student’s diverse strengths and areas for development, his or her need for instructional access to the general education curriculum may require different educational placements, for varying durations, and at different times during his or her academic career. A continuum or cascade of services (Deno, 1962; Reynolds, 1970) will be necessary to explore and utilize services from a combination of programmatic options. The model is not the problem. Rather, too often the lack of collaborative and deliberate consideration and respect for the student’s present level of academic achievement and functional performance result in problematic decisions that adversely affect the integrity of the placement process.
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