“Least Restrictive Setting” and How It is Misused 42 Years Later …

In 1975, federal law was passed protecting the rights of students with disabilities and PL 94-172 has been the guiding light ever since.  Parents, educators, and advocates have been on this vigilant path for 42 years and continue to work toward providing opportunities for students identified with disabilities and other conditions which impact their lives.  The Department of Education describes the importance of  PL-94-172 and IDEA as follows: ” … since the passage of Public Law 94-142, significant progress has been made toward meeting major national goals for developing and implementing effective programs and services for early intervention, special education, and related services. Before IDEA, many children … were denied access to education and opportunities to learn. For example, in 1970, U.S. schools educated only one in five children with disabilities, and many states had laws excluding certain students, including children who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, or mentally retarded [cognitive disability) .  Today, early intervention programs and services are provided to almost 200,000 eligible infants and toddlers and their families, while nearly 6 million children and youth receive special education and related services to meet their individual needs. Other accomplishments directly attributable to IDEA include educating more children in their neighborhood schools, rather than in separate schools and institutions, and contributing to improvements in the rate of high school graduation, post-secondary school enrollment, and post-school employment for youth with disabilities who have benefited from IDEA. ”

However, on the education advocacy trail, working in schools all across the country, I see an alarming pattern that continues and appears to go unchecked.  Most notably, when parents request additional support for their children within the General Education classroom such as a Para-Educator scheduled to implement accommodations, offer redirection support, or sustain behavioral self-regulation strategies, often these requests are called-out as “too restrictive”, “inappropriate”, and “will create life-long dependency on adults”.   In these situations, we have a districts using the “least restrictive” framework protecting students from their parent’s interest or perspective.  This is a radical departure from the original intent found within PL-94-172, which provided parents and their children support and services against district refusal of services and institutional placement outside of the General Education setting.  I often hear districts claim that they are working “in the child’s best interest” and express that Para Educator support will do more harm than good.  Nevertheless, within the context of many more students today requiring in-depth accommodations related to anxiety, social emotional supports, behavioral intervention plans, and constant re-direction due to add/adhd tendencies, it’s almost impossible for the General Education teacher alone to implement accommodations and modifications designated in IEP (individual education plans) or 504 Accommodation Plans.  Imagine the following: Within a typical classroom, there likely will be between 13-20% of the students supported by an IEP.  Also, there may likely be an additional 5-15% of the class supported by a 504 Plan.  And in each situation, teachers are expected to consistently provide accommodations for these students, as well as implement the instructional program and class management system for the whole class.

Specifically, just this past week, I worked with teams developing General Education Accommodation Plans for students including the following:

a. Behavior reinforcement systems requiring positive feedback every ten minutes

b. Re-direction strategies implemented following every transition, every task, and during class instruction.

c. Sensory breaks and self-regulation time-outs provided “as needed” which could be once every 30 minutes.

d. Modification of assignments by breaking tasks into smaller “chunks” and establishing specific target due dates for each element.

In one situation, the IEP team identified over 30 different accommodations required for one student alone.  This is crazy!  Especially, when we are asking the General Education teacher to go-it-alone.  There’s no question in my mind why a number of teachers are frustrated by their IEP or 504 Plan supported students, for the system often expects them to do way too much within the context of a classroom of 25-30 students.  So it’s within reason for parents to ask for additional support within the classroom.

Again, what we often hear in reply is the following: “Students, who require this level of support, need to be assigned to a Self-Contained Classroom, where a Para-Educator is available.”   This is not the definition of “least restrictive” from our perspective. Though it’s true, each situation and each child is different.

Specifically, when districts refuse services and supports for students within the context of “least restrictive setting”, parents have few options except those that are outlined within the Procedural Safeguards including Citizen Complaints and Due Process; which often create an adversarial relationship and may be an extraordinary expense if one chooses to “lawyer-up”.

So from my point of view, everyone is working toward the best interest of each child.  I don’t argue this point.  However, I do believe there are circumstances when the services required are limited due to budget restraints.  Certainly, not all students need Para Educator support.  Also, we all can agree that not all students need an FM Hearing System, Voice to Text Software, or a Laptop.  However, due to the costs associated with these accommodations today, in 2017, most schools do not think twice about implementing these interventions. Then again, this was not the case twenty years ago, when these tools were cost-prohibitive. So the same guiding principle should apply to the Para Educator accommodation:  It should not be a matter of expense no matter how you frame it.  And so even though we often hear, “this is not the least restrictive intervention”, for many of our students, the General Education setting, with support, is THE least restrictive setting!

For more information about education advocacy, and Special Education Advocacy.Org, give us a call at 206 914 0975 or www.specialeducationadvocacy.org.

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