Placement Determination: Reality vs. Fiction

Parents are often very confused by the IEP placement process, and rightfully so.  By the time they call an advocate, they feel the current program is not working.  And, while they often know where they want their child to go to school, they don’t really know how to get him there.  (As well, parents often don’t understand the intricacies involved, nor the very good-in-theory concept of “least restrictive environment”).

The process is supposed to work something like this:

1.  At a team meeting, an IEP is developed with input from the entire team.  This document includes, amongst other components, required accommodations, goals/benchmarks, and the determination of what services the student requires (ie: on the service delivery grid and under Schedule Modification) to meet the defined goals and benchmarks.

2.  After the IEP itself is drafted, the type of placement is determined (full inclusion, partial inclusion, substantially separate classroom, public or private day school, or residential).

3.  After the type of placement is determined, there is a discussion of where (specific program location) the child’s needs can be appropriately met.

I hear (of) some team chairs telling parents, before the IEP is even written, that it is the district’s responsibility to keep the child in their LRE (least restrictive environment) and that a student HAS to try a collaborative first.  The latter is creative thinking and reasoning.  Here’s why:  The over-arching responsibility of the team is to determine where a child’s unique needs requires can be effectively met in the least restrictive environment.  I am not issuing a blanket criticism of collaboratives as there are some exceptional collaborative programs out there.  Yet, not every child’s needs can be met in a “public day school” or “substantially separate classroom” placement.

In my experience, most collaboratives do not have the resources to provide 25 hours a week of true Applied Behavior Analysis  (not “ABA methodology” or “principles of ABA”).  Yes, collaboratives are much more cost-effective (they were created as a way for districts to pool resources and keep kids in high quality programs closer to home) and can be very successful for kids who still are able to access inclusion with same aged peers.  When it works and kids make effective progress, it is absolutely a “win-win” situation.  A collaborative can provide appropriate teaching AND social facilitation and inclusion opportunities for many kids.  Not all.

If a child requires more direct instruction (ie: high staff:student ratio, discrete trial teaching, complex behavioral plan and protocols, daily BCBA consultation), and can not meaningfully benefit from inclusion, the team chair should keep all programming options on the table.  (I know of one collaborative that can meet the above qualifiers.  One.).  That option may be a private day school and that type of placement shouldn’t be excluded simply because it is NOT a collaborative.  Yet, I’m told, and read team meeting notes which indicate, that this is exactly what does often happen.

To circle back to what parents are being told in some school districts.  There is no “you have to go to a collaborative” or “if we don’t propose it, the state will cite us for non-compliance” law or regulation.  The entire IEP placement process is focused on identifying the right program for the child, not fitting the child into a program.

The bottom line is if the proposed IEP can’t be modified or changed to ensure effective progress within the current setting,  the IEP team should look at other options.  No, folks, the other options don’t just have to be collaboratives.

Finally, I can not say the following strongly enough:  In order to obtain a private, day placement when working with a reluctant school district team, you need a strong independent evaluation from an evaluator willing to back up (at a team meeting, for instance) their findings and recommendations.


The above is written based on my years experience as an educational advocate.  I am not an attorney.  As such, any opinion pieces should not be viewed as formal, legal advice.