A federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to provide “free appropriate education” and support services for children with disabilities. The IDEA expresses a strong preference for what’s known as “mainstreaming”—placing children with disabilities in regular classrooms alongside their nondisabled peers.
Of course, a regular classroom setting may not be suitable for every student with a disability. In fact, it might be harmful in some cases. The law requires mainstreaming only to “the maximum extent appropriate.” Schools may place special ed kids in separate classes or schools if their disabilities are so severe that they can’t participate “satisfactorily” in regular classes, even with the help of support services and other aids. But alternative placements aren’t appropriate just because teachers would have to modify the instruction to meet the special ed students’ needs. (20 U.S. C. §§ 1412(a)(5), 34 C.F.R. § 116(e).)
Least Restrictive Educational Setting
Whether mainstreamed fully, partially, or not at all, special ed students must receive their education in the “least restrictive environment” that’s appropriate, depending on all of their needs, abilities, and disabilities. Children should be able to go to school as close to home as possible and at the same school that they would attend if they didn’t have a disability, unless another arrangement is required to meet their needs. (20 U.S. C. §§ 1412(a)(5), 1414(d)(1)(A)(IV); 30 C.F.R. § 300.114.)
School districts should provide a range of alternative placement options, including:
- a mix of regular and special classes during the school day
- special classes in a regular school
- special schools or residential programs for children with serious problems, or
- instruction at home.
(34 C.F.R. § 300.115.)
Often, there’s a conflict between the preference in IDEA for mainstreaming and the law’s requirement that special ed be tailored to meet each child’s individual needs. Courts have taken different approaches to balancing those competing principles. Some of the factors that courts have considered include:
- whether the special ed student can benefit academically from instruction in a regular classroom
- whether mainstreaming results in nonacademic benefits for the child (such as socialization and being exposed to the way other students use language)
- whether the teacher has to modify the regular course work so much that the special ed student wouldn’t learn any of the skills normally taught, in which case mainstreaming would be pointless
- the impact of the special ed child on the rest of the class, especially if that child is disruptive or requires so much of the teacher’s time that other students suffer, and
- whether the special ed student could be mainstreamed in some classes if not all (such as going to elective or P.E. classes with nondisabled students but studying core academics in special classes tailored for specific intellectual disabilities).
(See, for example, Daniel R. R. v. State Bd. of Educ., 874 F.2d 1036 (5th Cir. 1989) and Sacramento City Unified School District, d. of Educ. v. Rachel H., 14 F.3d 1398 (9th Cir. 1994).)
Questions for Your Lawyer
- What if the school district wants to mainstream my deaf daughter with the help of a sign language interpreter, but I think she’d feel isolated and would do better in a good program with other deaf children?
- School officials say that my autistic son can’t be in the regular classroom because he acts out, but I think the teacher just doesn’t want to bother with him. How can I convince them that he could get along in the class with proper behavioral support?
- Can the school get away with saying that it’s just too expensive to provide the support needed to mainstream my special ed child?
- What can I do if the school says that the only appropriate placement for my child is in a residential facility that’s 400 miles away?