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Second Circuit Says Least-Restrictive Environment Requirement Applies to Extended-Year Placements

SchoolNet Blog Archives
April 28, 2014

On April 2, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the least-restrictive environment requirement (LRE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) applies to extended school-year placements (ESY) as well as school-year placements.

In T.M. v. Cornwall Central School District, Nos. 12-4301 (2d Cir. Apr. 2, 2014), a school district proposed an individualized education program (IEP) that would place T.M., a student with autism, in a 12-month educational program that would include ESY services during the summer. In accordance with LRE, the IEP would place T.M. in mainstream classes integrated with non-disabled students during the school-year. During the summer months, however, the district only offered programs limited to self-contained special education classrooms that did not include non-disabled students. Thus, the parents rejected the proposed IEP and requested a due process hearing. Thereafter, the parents enrolled T.M. in a private mainstream program for the school year and the summer.

Subsequently, the parents sought reimbursement for all expenses incurred from the private placement, alleging that the district failed to offer the least restrictive ESY placement. In defense, the district asserted that LRE only applies when a district already operates a less-restrictive classroom in which the student can be placed. Because the district did not operate a mainstream summer program, it claimed that the LRE did not apply to the student’s summer placement.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the district, stating that it did not violate the IDEA because it did not operate a less restrictive summer program, so the parents could not show that a less restrictive option was available but not offered. The Second Circuit, however, reversed, holding that the district violated the IDEA by not placing T.M. in a mainstream classroom during the summer. The court further held that a student’s particular LRE refers to “the least restrictive educational setting consistent with that student’s needs, not the least restrictive setting that the school district chooses to make available.”

The court stated that a school district that does not have a mainstream summer program may satisfy LRE by offering placement in a private or public program operated by another entity. However, if a school district refuses to consider a sufficient “continuum of possible ESY placements” and does not satisfy LRE, “it may be liable for reimbursement if the child’s parents find an appropriate placement.”

In conclusion, the Second Circuit emphasized three important points:

  • Under the IDEA, public school districts are not required to create any new ESY programs they do not currently operate.
  • Even if a school district does not place a student in an ESY program that satisfies the LRE, reimbursement is only warranted if the student (1) finds a private alternative placement, (2) proves the alternative placement was appropriate, and (3) proves that equitable considerations favor reimbursement.
  • Public school districts are only required to offer a “continuum of alternative placements,” not every possible ESY program that could be a student’s LRE.

The Second Circuit’s decision illustrates courts’ broad interpretation of LRE in the context of ESY placements. School districts should consider the court’s Cornwall Central School District decision in planning extended school year placements.