When General Education is not the Least Restrictive Environment
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) requires that an eligible child receive a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) in the least restrictive environment (“LRE”) (20 U.S.C. § 1401(9); 20 U.S.C. § 1406(2)). Although special education includes a wide spectrum of available services, ranging from minor adjustments in the child’s mainstreamed class to a complete residential placement, the goal of special education is to keep the child as mainstreamed as possible. An out-of-district residential placement is considered more restrictive than an out-of-district day placement, which in turn is considered more restrictive than a public school placement with pullouts for various services, which in turn is considered more restrictive than a public school placement in the general education classroom.
However, this all depends on the needs of the child. If the Team agrees that a student needs special education services, can a non-special education school suffice? This was the issue decided very recently by the Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (“BSEA”) in the case of In re: Curt and West Boylston Public Schools – BSEA # 15-08235.
In this case, the student, who was diagnosed with a Language Based Learning Disabiity (“LBLD”), attended the Carroll School through the ninth grade, which is the highest grade available at Carroll. The Team agreed that Landmark School, which is another school that specializes in LBLD, would be appropriate for Curt for high school. However, attending Landmark would have meant a commute of over one hour from West Boylston.
Curt’s parents pointed to 603 CMR 28.06(8)(a), which guides Teams against commutes of over an hour. This regulation states, “The district shall not permit any eligible student to be transported in a manner that requires the student to remain in the vehicle for more than one hour each way except with the approval of the Team. The Team shall document such determination on the IEP.” To avoid this commuting problem, the school district even offered to pay for a residential placement.
Parents were not thrilled with either a long commute OR a residential placement at Landmark, so they requested a placement at school district expense at one of two private general education schools: The Winchendon School or Chapel Hill – Chauncy Hall. When West Boylston refused both placements, parents made a unilateral placement of Curt at the Winchendon School, and then filed a hearing request with the BSEA.
The Hearing Officer, Ray Oliver, found in favor of the school district. His reasoning was that if the Team agreed that Curt required a special education placement, a general education placement would not be appropriate. It would not provide the student with the services that he needed. Therefore, between the choices of a distant special education school or a nearby general education school, the distant special education school would be where the student could get his FAPE in the LRE. The Hearing Officer also stated that the regulation regarding commuting time “is not an absolute bar to transporting a student more than one hour each way but rather allows a waiver of such time limit by the Team.” Although a residential placement would be more restrictive than a day placement, it would at least allow the required IEP services to be implemented, whereas that would not be possible at a regular education school.
The Law Office of James M. Baron represents students and parents in special education and other school-related legal matters throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Please visit http://www.lawbaron.com, or call 781-209-1166 for more information.