Insights from Recent Sixth Circuit LRE Case
We carefully follow Sixth Circuit cases because they define how federal laws will be applied in Michigan. A recent Sixth Circuit least restrictive environment (LRE) case continues the trend of downplaying the role of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in LRE cases. Knox County, Tennessee v. M. Q., Case Nos. 21-5556/22-5268 (March 17, 2023).
The facts were that the school district made an aggressive decision to place a quiet autistic kindergarten-aged student, with no apparent cognitive impairment, outside the general education classroom for half his school day. The parents filed for due process alleging the school district had violated IDEA’s LRE requirement. The administrative law judge (ALJ) agreed with the parents. So did the district court and the Sixth Circuit.
On appeal, the school district argued its placement was better for the student. The Court held that, even assuming the school district was right, IDEA’s LRE provision, in some fashion, trumped its FAPE provision. Specifically, the Court stated:
Determining a student’s LRE requires the school district to consider several factors, including the student’s instructional needs as well as the extent to which the student would benefit from a self-contained learning setting. [citation omitted]. These considerations are counterbalanced by the statute’s mandate to integrate students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate. As a result, certain classroom placements that appear to offer superior academic services to students with disabilities may, nevertheless, be deemed unsuitable learning environments because they unnecessarily remove the students from general education. … ‘[I]n some cases, a placement which may be considered better for academic reasons may not be appropriate because of the failure to provide for mainstreaming.’ (citing L.H. v. Hamilton Cnty Dept of Educ, 900 F3d 779 (CA6 2018).
Knox County also addressed the relationship between IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Title II of the ADA). Specifically, the Court held that, in the absence of evidence of intentional discrimination or refusal to reasonably accommodate, the fact the school district violated IDEA’s LRE requirement was not a per se violation of Section 504 or Title II ADA. Finding no such evidence, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision dismissing the parents’ Section 504 and Title II ADA claims. In dicta, and therefore not binding, the Court also suggested parents did not have to establish “bad faith” to seek injunctive relief under Section 504 or Title II ADA, but there may be such a requirement for parents seeking money damages.