Least Restrictive Environment Court Cases

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Public education is a pillar of American society, but has presented legal challenges when students are excluded. In this lesson, we'll talk about how the concept of the least restrictive environment has been used to support the education of students with disabilities.

Least Restrictive Environment Education

There are many different ways in which people learn. Some are visual learners, some are auditory learners, some are procrastinate-and-cram-the-night-before learners… you know what I'm talking about. Most schools try to present information in various ways to accommodate different learning types. But what if someone's learning is impacted by other factors like physical or developmental disabilities? We want educational environments that can support all types of learning, and that's why we focus on the least restrictive environment (LRE). The LRE is a federally-supported legal requirement stating that students with disabilities must receive an education with their peers to the maximum possible extent. Basically, students with disabilities should not be removed from regular classes and should be educated as part of a peer group. Why? It's not only a question of how students learn, but what we teach them about themselves and their disabilities.

Education is important for all, regardless of disabilities
Special education teacher

A Brief Background

The LRE is a legal requirement, meaning it has been upheld in legal cases by American courts. The history leading to the LRE actually begins back in 1954 with the decision in the case of Brown v Board of Education. At the time, schools were segregated, with white and black children attending different public schools. Thirteen parents, representing 20 children in Topeka, Kansas sued the school board. The case reached the US Supreme Court, then under Chief Justice Earl Warren, which unanimously agreed that segregation in education was unconstitutional. As the court claimed: Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. All public schools would have to be integrated.

The Warren Court
Warren Court

P.A.R.C. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

So, what does Brown v. Board have to do with students with disabilities? Well, parents of these students started realizing that their children were also not receiving an equal education. In 1972, an attorney for the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania on behalf of 14 children with learning disabilities who were denied access to public education. At this time, the state legally allowed schools to reject students who had not reached a certain level of mental development. PARC brought in expert observers to testify that students with disabilities could greatly benefit from being educated alongside their peers, which was a similar tactic used by the attorneys in Brown v Board. In the end, the court hearing PARC v Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ruled that the state was obligated to provide public education to children with disabilities, and stated that it was better for these students to be in regular classrooms.

Mills v Board of Education

In that same year, 1972, another major case was decided. In Mills v Board of Education, a lawsuit was filed on the behalf of seven children who had been denied access to public education due to a variety of mental, physical, and developmental disabilities. The District of Columbia Public Schools argued that it could not accommodate these students because it would place too much financial burden on the school. In the end, the courts ruled that the students could not be denied public education, upholding the PARC case decision, and also stated that schools could not legally use insufficient finances as an excuse to deny any student access to education. In both the PARC and Mills cases, these decisions were based on the courts' interpretation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, which claims that states must respect all legal rights owed to a person, which meant education in these cases.

Later Cases

Following the PARC and Mills cases, another 27 federal court cases upheld the need to provide equal access to education to students with disabilities. This was standardized with the passing of the Education for all Handicapped Children Act in 1975, now called Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This established the legal right of all children to a free, public education and guaranteed that children with disabilities would be educated as robustly as possible.

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