How to Stop Making Placement Decisions Based on a Disability Label

Too often, placement decisions are based on a learner's disability label. Here is how to stop doing that.

Discussing the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is a tricky business.

Especially, when as a special education teacher, you are expected to convince a family that a more restrictive environment is in the best interest of their child.

I was put in that position a number of times over my career as a special education teacher, and despite my strong preference as an inclusionist, there was always an uncomfortable tension.

Do I speak up and advocate for what I thought was right even if my colleagues (or the family) thought a segregated special education classroom was more appropriate?

As I’ve written about before, sometimes I did speak my mind, but many times I kept my thoughts to myself (which brings me a lot of shame).

One such instance was during an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting where the school team was recommending moving the student to a more restrictive placement, a disability-specific classroom. The family was adamant that they were not going to entertain a different placement than their current general education classroom.

The discussion centered around the behavioral and sensory needs of the student and how much time the student spent outside the classroom decompressing from being overwhelmed. The position of the school team was that in the recommended special education classroom, the behavioral and sensory needs of the student could be addressed and it would be the best place for the student to learn and make progress on IEP goals and objectives. It is worth noting that in this particular instance, the student was on grade level for all their academics.

The school staff member that was leading the IEP meeting finally said that the district offer of FAPE (a Free and Appropriate Public Education) was this self-contained special education classroom and that if the family disagreed with that recommendation, there were options at their disposal, included filing for due process.

Fast forward a few years, and I learned that rather than fighting the recommendation of the district, the family removed their child and homeschooled them.

I think about this situation quite a bit, and while it certainly isn’t a unique example, what as an educator could I have done differently? Even if I did speak up and say that I didn’t think the disability-specific special education classroom was appropriate, I was only one person on the IEP team. There was no guarantee that the team would have changed their recommendation.

What I have now, that I wish I had then, is a better understanding of the concept of the LRE and how to facilitate placement decisions. It’s been my experience that special education teachers are often experts in how to adapt curriculum and implement academic and behavioral interventions, but not well equipped to have discussions about LRE. We educators look to special education administrators to be fluent in that language. But what if they themselves don’t know how to lead this conversation in IEP meetings in an authentic way, or don’t really know what the IDEA regulations say?

Fortunately, MCIE just published a white paper called Placement of Learners with Disabilities in the Least Restrictive Environment, written by our CEO, Dr. Carol Quirk.

It’s a 21-page document that highlights the legal requirements of IDEA on the placement of learners with disabilities, citing case law and discussions in the regulations as well as the Federal Register.

For instance, did you know that there is no reference to a “continuum of services” in IDEA? There is only the need to identify and describe the services the learners will receive and who will deliver those services.

In addition, IDEA specifically states that “special education is a service, not a place,” despite the many schools and districts that create places (or programs) for students to go receive services. Furthermore, the law says that students with disabilities should not be removed from regular classrooms solely because of the need for modifications to the general education curriculum.

The white paper also refers to the Federal Register, where it states that data shows “that if disabled students are simply placed in general education classrooms without necessary supports and modifications they are more likely to drop out of school than their nondisabled peers.” The burden of proof clearly lies with the school district to say that they have tried everything to include the student with disabilities in a general education classroom.

The case law examples are particularly useful to educators or family members. If I was sitting in those IEP meetings today, I would make sure the team answered the following questions during the placement discussion:

  • How have we tried to provide the services the student requires in the general education classroom?

  • What educational and nonacademic benefits would the student be missing out on by being removed from the general education classroom?

  • If removal is necessary, when will the student be included with their peers, and when will the student return to the general education classroom?

As recent as 2000, the 3rd Circuit Court decision in T.R. v. Kingwood Township clarified that the LRE is the one that, “to the greatest extent possible, satisfactorily educates the disabled child with nondisabled children, in the same school the child would attend in the child were not disabled.”

But beyond asking questions in IEP meetings during the placement discussion, what else can advocates do?

For those of you who want to see inclusive education move forward in your neck of the woods, here’s a quick and dirty inclusion action plan.

1. Read our LRE White Paper

2. Learn How We Can Help

3. Schedule a Meeting with Me

You aren’t alone. There are educators, families, and advocates who want to dismantle educational systems that have segregated students with disabilities for far too long.

It’s always time to fix what is wrong.



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