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Appropriate placement for children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment is a provision of the IDEA of 1997, and 2004. IEP and IFSP teams must determine placement for these children under the guidelines imbedded within the law. Families of children with disabilities sometimes disagree with the recommendations of the school districts, and seek rulings on how best to serve their children’s educational and special needs. This journal article looks at the administrative and judicial decisions and found four themes regarding placement decisions: The potential for academic and nonacademic benefits, readiness for inclusion, instructional approaches, and the consideration of a full continuum of options. The article also provided specific guidelines for the promotion of inclusive settings for children with disabilities.
The author, Susan Etscheidt, researched published decisions from administrative hearings, district courts, and appellate courts between 1997-2004, which provided child-specific data about age and disability, regarding inclusive placement or the least restrictive environment (LRE). She utilized a qualitative content methodology, which identified key words and phrases regarding LRE in researching databases for her study. The four themes that were mentioned previously all are represented in her findings.
The first theme, decisions based on potential benefits, looked at cases brought in the matter of appropriate placements of children with disabilities including children with hearing impairments and cochlear implants , based on the academic and social benefits to the child. Etscheidt found ten cases where placement was disputed. The decisions regarding LREs for children with disabilities primarily supported inclusive environments, with the exception of Foothill Special Educational Local Plan Area (SELPA; 2002). That decision was made by an administrative law judge who determined that the home-based setting being sought for a child with a cochlear implant, could not provide services by credentialed teachers and therapists; the ruling necessitated private center-based placement. Inclusive and natural settings provided benefits including, language and social modeling from non-disabled peers. Decisions regarding students requiring specialized intensive services, recommended programs that secured those benefits in combination with inclusive settings.
Next, Etscheidt looked at decisions based on readiness for inclusive placements, for children with disabilities. Decisions made on inclusive placements judged academic and social readiness, non-age related determinations for kindergarten readiness, development delays, and disruptive behaviors. The list of cases was inclusive, but I am going to review just one of these important cases, Board of Education of the Oceanside Union Free District (2004). The parents of a preschooler with multiple disabilities requested a more restrictive setting, as they felt their child was not ready for an integrated kindergarten program. The state review officer reviewed the IEP teams testimony stating the benefits of placing the child with mainstream peers, and decided with the school district to place the child in the LRE. It is important to note that some students may not be ready for inclusive placements, and IEP teams must decide this on a case-by-case basis.
Decisions based on instructional approaches for children with autism were related to instructional methodologies and the availability for those to be provided in the LRE. Some of these decisions showed that a child’s home may be the LRE to receive instructional methodology, and other decisions placed children in school program if those program had the methodologies in place to meet the children’s needs. The deciding factor in placement of the child was therefore, the IEPs choice of methodology, and the availability of those in a school-based setting. A case in this category was In the Matter of Andrew Steinmetz v. Richmond County School Corporation, (2002). The courts found that a 5-year old with autism, should be placed in the school setting which offered an eclectic program, rather than the home-based setting that incorporated a discrete trial method.
The final theme the article discussed was decisions based on a full continuum of options. These cases were in correlation to the recommendations of the IFSP and IEP teams, and the full consideration of different placement options. The teams were ordered to show a range of placement options, including placement in private preschool settings to ensure the provisions of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) was made in the LRE. In the case of Ray M. and all other persons similarly situated v. Board of Education of the City school District of the City of New York, (1999), a district court in New York ruled that the state education department needed to increase the number of available integrated preschools in order to provide service to children with disabilities in the LRE.
In addition to the legal analysis, Etscheidt offered up several guidelines to promote inclusive placement decisions. In brief, she encouraged the professional development of inclusive providers, the use of behavioral supports to improve how a child functions in the classroom and the expansion of community-based programs that offers integrated programs for children with disabilities. These guidelines, along with an understanding of legalities in special education, are vital pieces of knowledge for special educators. I found that the legal cases and the decisions that were rendered helped me to understand the importance developing IEPs that provide services to students within the LRE. Several of the disputes were in regards to a parents disagreement with the recommendations made by the IEP team, further strengthening the importance for appropriate IEPs.
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