by Félix Pérez
Georgia “relegated thousands of students with behavior-related disabilities to separate, segregated and unequal settings, . . . dilapidated buildings that were formerly used for black children during segregation,” charges the U.S. Justice Department in a lawsuit filed last week.
By placing students with behavior-related disabilities in segregated buildings or classrooms, the lawsuit maintains, the state “discriminates against thousands of public school students . . . by unnecessarily segregating them, or by placing them at serious risk of such segregation, in a separate and unequal educational program known as the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support,“ or GNETS.
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The legal challenge, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, argues that GNETS violates the American with Disabilities Act and Olmstead v L.C., a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires states to make services available to people with disabilities – including children with behavioral disabilities – in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.
U.S. Attorney John A. Horn of the Northern District of Georgia said:
This complaint alleges that many children in the GNETS program are consigned to dilapidated buildings that were formerly used for black children during segregation, or to classrooms that are locked apart from mainstream classrooms, with substantially fewer opportunities of participating in extracurricular activities like music, art and sports. The law mandates that all children, including those with behavior-related disabilities, must have equal opportunities for education, and several existing programs within our Georgia schools show that with appropriate support and services, these students can enjoy far greater integration with their peers.
GNETS serves 4,600 students from more than half of Georgia’s public schools and receives $72 million in state and federal funding. Fifty-four percent of students in GNETS are African American compared with 37 percent of all Georgia public school students.
One mother of a student in a GNETS center in Cobb County said, at the time the federal government began its investigation,”He has been in the same room for five years. He doesn’t ride the same bus, isn’t included in things like the school play or other activities and his academics are completely suffering,” She added, “He hates going to school and says it feels like a prison. He has trust issues and doesn’t like adults. It’s a very isolating situation.”
The lawsuit describes how GNETS students in one area of Georgia were educated in a single classroom in the basement of a general education school with its own separate entrance. The students never left the basement or interacted with any other students during the school day. Hanging at the front of their classroom was a large sign that said “DETENTION,” because the classroom was also used for detention outside regular school hours. Other students in the GNETS program are entirely segregated from their peers outside GNETS and attend school in “often old, poorly maintained buildings, some of which formerly served as schools for black students under Jim Crow laws.”
In July 2015, the Justice Department issued a “findings letter,” notifying the state that it was violating the ADA by unnecessarily placing students with behavior-related disabilities in segregated settings, denying them opportunities for meaningful interaction with their peers without disabilities. The department found that most students in GNETS spend their entire school day, including meals, exclusively with other students with disabilities. Specifically, more than two-thirds of GNETS students are assigned to attend school in regional GNETS centers that exclusively serve students with disabilities in buildings that are often located far from students’ homes. Other students are assigned to regional GNETS classrooms located within general school buildings, but often in separate wings or isolated sections of the buildings.
Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods, in a statement said, “We are disappointed in the DOJ’s decision to sue, especially given the tremendous efforts we’ve put into enhancing the educational experience for the small percentage of children who receive education services from GNETS programs. We believe these efforts are working.”