Is it time to re-think what the LRE is?

Sooner or later the law is going to have to recognize that our standards for LRE—Least Restrictive Environment—are based on an outdated model from the 1960s.  Things have changed.  In the 1960s, facilities that served only students with disabilities were pretty shabby.  The term “warehouse” was often used.  Children—and adults—with disabilities were frequently shunted off to poorly funded institutions with low paid staff where services were minimal. Thus our fellow citizens with disabilities were hidden from view.  There were many reports, later, of abuse and neglect.

The emphasis in the law about serving students in the LRE was a direct response to this. The idea was a good and noble one—let’s bring these people out of the shadows, into our communities and into our general classrooms where the other students are.  From its first enactment in 1975 the law now known as IDEA incorporated a requirement that students with disabilities be served in the LRE. If you want a simple, non-legalese definition of LRE try this one:  it’s the place where the student would have maximum interaction with non-disabled peers, while still receiving the special services the student needed. 

In 2019 things are different.  While there are still reports of abuse and neglect in some institutions that serve people with disabilities, there are also a growing number of private schools specifically designed to serve students with disabilities.  I’ve not done any research on this, but my impression is that many of these are very good schools.  Why wouldn’t they be? They have the advantage of a tightly focused mission statement. They are not attempting to serve the vastly diverse population we find in the public schools. They are focusing on a narrow niche of students, all of whom have similar needs.  They can benefit from the best research and seek out teachers who want to teach the type of children they serve.  They receive grants, benefit from fundraising activities and charge a lot of tuition to those who can afford it.

The Benedictine School in Maryland is one of those schools.  The Benedictines have been serving children and adults with developmental disabilities since 1959 and they currently have a 4.6 average score on Google. See

So let’s assume that the Benedictine School is an excellent school for a child with disabilities.  Let’s assume that it can provide a quality of services that the public school simply cannot match.  Many parents would want their special needs child to attend such a school.

But there is a problem.  The only students at the Benedictine School are students with disabilities.  Automatically, therefore, it is more restrictive than whatever the public school will offer.  This issue came to a head in a case recently decided by the 4th Circuit.   The parents of the student in the case did not want their daughter to spend time with her non-disabled peers. They believed it would be better for their daughter to be with kids who were more like her.  Maybe it would be better, educationally, but the 4th Circuit held that it would not satisfy the legal standard.  Key Quote:

[The parents] argue that they are not urging [the school district] to increase the number of hours that [the student] spends with her peers who are not disabled; instead, they contend that the LRE for [the student] would include more time among peers with disabilities, and they seek placement in a private school to achieve that outcome.  This argument miscomprehends the LRE requirement, which is defined in terms of the extent to which children with disabilities “are educated with children who are not disabled.”  (Emphasis added).

Here’s a prediction: in the coming years there will be more parents who feel like the parents in this case. They don’t care so much about the traditional notion of LRE.  They want their child to get the best possible education, and if that happens to be in a school that only accepts students with autism, or learning disabilities, or some other disability, they will be fine with that.  When parents who believe that way reach critical mass, we might see changes in the law. In the meantime, LRE means the placement that offers the most time with the non-disabled students.

That’s why the parents lost the argument in R.F. v. Cecil County Public Schools.  The 4th Circuit issued this decision on March 25, 2019.  We found it at 919 F.3d 237.  


The Dawg barks again on Monday. Be there!