Parents filed a lawsuit against a school district, alleging that it failed to meet its obligations to provide a free and appropriate public education to their child because it did not place the child in the least restrictive environment appropriate for his needs. The elementary school student had diagnoses of autism, ADHD and speech impairment and qualified for special education services.

In first grade, the child was placed in a program for special education students that concentrated on teaching communication and social skills. The student was successful in that program and therefore his placement was changed to a different program that was tailored to higher-functioning students who spent time in general education classes but also received separate instruction in social skills.

He continued to make academic and behavioral progress in second grade, but began to struggle in third grade. That year, he primarily attended classes in the general education classroom with the assistance of an aide. His behavior became unproductive and disruptive, to the extent that he sometimes had to be removed from the classroom. The ARD committee met and recommended, over the parents' objection, that the child be removed from the general education classroom and placed back in the original program for special education students.

The parents filed a complaint, alleging that the proposed move would violate federal IDEA regulations for not placing the student in the least restrictive environment. The filing of the complaint prevented the student from being removed, so he remained in the general education classroom for the rest of the school year. During that time, his behavior improved substantially and he continued to progress academically.

The administrative hearing officer determined that the child should appropriately be left in a general education environment and the district court agreed. The case was appealed, where the court of appeals noted that in order to determine whether placement in a general education setting was appropriate, it should consider:

  1. whether the child would receive educational benefit from regular education,
  2. the child’s overall educational experience in the mainstream environment, balancing the benefits of regular and special education for each child, and
  3. what effect the child’s presence has on the regular classroom environment and, thus, on the education that the other students are receiving.

In this case, the court noted that the student demonstrated marked improvement in a general education setting and that his behavior and social skills had benefitted due to his ability to model the conduct of his general education classmates. Therefore, his proposed removal to a special education program would violate IDEA’s requirement that students be educated in the “least restrictive environment.”