A Case for Inclusion
What the case was about
The case D.R. vs. Redondo Beach Unified School District concerns a boy, known as D.R. to protect his privacy, who was denied the inclusive placement his family sought because the district court said he had “failed to demonstrate ‘appropriate educational benefit’ from inclusion in general education.”
The story begins in 2018, when D.R. was in the third grade. He was being taught in a general education classroom for 75% of his school day and pulled out to a Learning Center for 1:1 instruction for the remaining time. D.R. was not able to achieve grade level standards, so his progress was measured by his IEP goals. He met four of his annual IEP goals and made progress on two other goals. Everyone agreed that he was making progress and that the inclusion in general education was beneficial for him to develop social skills.
Then, in his 2019 IEP, the school wanted to increase his time in special education to 56% by placing him in an SDC class where he would have access to Unique, an “alternate curriculum.” When the case went to due process, the school argued that the progress D.R. had made previously was due to the individual instruction he received in the Learning Center, and that moving him to a segregated special education class for over half of his school day would result in even more progress.
Surprisingly to many, the administrative law judge agreed and supported the IEP team’s decision. The case then proceeded to the U.S. District Court, which also agreed. This concerned many special education advocates and attorneys because it seemed to contradict decades of case law that set out the IDEA’s “presumption of inclusion” that forms the foundation of the requirement that IEP teams provide students with the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The IDEA makes it clear that students with disabilities are entitled to be educated with students who do not receive special education services, to the maximum extent appropriate.
As the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), the ARC, Disability Rights California (DRC), and other disability rights organizations put it in an amicus brief, the court’s decision instead “plac[es] the onus on students to prove that they can benefit from general education.” In their support of the appeal, COPAA, the ARC, DRC, and others asked the U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn the U.S. District Court’s decision, which they felt, in addition to reversing the IDEA’s presumption of inclusion, also denied children with disabilities performing below grade level their right to access general education. “If allowed to stand,” they wrote, “the District Court decision will do untold damage to the Rachel H. test and the LRE standard, depriving not just D.R. but countless students of their right to inclusive education.”
Presenting to the U.S. Court of Appeals, David German, lead counsel on the case, argued, “If this outcome is not overturned, the IDEA’s LRE requirement will have been rendered inconsequential as an impediment to the arbitrary and unnecessary segregation and social exclusion of students with disabilities.”
The court also found that Unique was not a suitable curriculum for a student working at D.R.’s level of academic accomplishment and should only be used as a supplement rather than as a replacement for modifications to the general education curriculum.
What the case means for families
The decision is a resounding vindication for inclusion advocates who feel that too many school districts are not fulfilling the spirit of IDEA’s least restrictive environment principle. As David German told Undivided, “The decision makes clear that district members of the IEP team can no longer rely on a presumption that segregation will be beneficial. Hopefully, requiring district personnel to provide actual evidence of how a student can supposedly benefit from time away from the general education classroom will force them to confront the overwhelming evidence that inclusion works for students.”
The case also raises serious questions about the accessibility of the due process system for parents. D.R.’s parents pursued their case despite losing at the administrative hearing and at the U.S. District court, but they were unable to recover any of their costs. If these parents decide to re-enroll their son in the Redondo Beach Unified School District after three years of battling them in court, they will have to return to the IEP table and build a new IEP based on the principles set out by the U.S. Court of Appeals, a daunting process for any family.
So what does the case mean for the rest of us? Thanks to the dogged work of D.R.’s parents, families raising kids with disabilities now have a solid legal precedent on which to base a case for inclusion for their own children.
When advocating for time in an inclusive setting, parents should keep in mind the test that the court used:
- Compare the academic benefits a child receives from placement in their general education classroom with the academic benefits available in a special education classroom.
- If your child is well below grade level, IEP goals are used to assess progress.
- Take into account both the IEP goals that were met and any progress made on unmet goals.
- Remember that whether a child can make more progress in a more restrictive setting is not considered because of the next point.
- Consider the non-academic benefits a child with disabilities derives from being educated in a gen ed classroom, such as “the development of social and communication skills from interaction with nondisabled peers.”
- Understand that the school must weigh the potential negative effects that the needs of a child with disabilities may have on the education of gen ed peers.
Parents should also keep in mind:
- Since IEP goals are used to assess progress, parents should evaluate proposed goals from this perspective: Can these goals be met in the general education classroom, and are these the goals we feel comfortable using as a measure of the child’s overall progress?
- Remember that in California, a student’s program placement cannot be changed without either the parents agreeing or the district filing for due process. As a parent, it’s important to know that you can say no without losing the services and supports you are trying to keep in place.
- It is possible that you may not be reimbursed for private education fees that you undertake during a disagreement.
For more information about inclusive education, read our articles Inclusion 101 and Least Restrictive Environment and Placement Options in an IEP. For more on due process, see Due Process 101.