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U.S.: Georgia illegally segregating students with disabilities in inferior buildings with inadequate instruction

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (Davis Turner/Getty Images)
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(Update: Comment from Georgia Attorney General’s office)

The U.S. Justice Department is accusing the state of Georgia of segregating thousands of students with behavior-based disabilities from their peers in inferior buildings that formerly served as schools for black students back in the years of legal segregation. Furthermore, the students are receiving unequal educational opportunities but instead many are getting only computer-based lessons rather than direct instruction from a certified teacher.

The department sent a letter (see below) to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens on July 15, detailing an investigation it had done into decades-old Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support and its compliance with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the letter here.

A spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education said he could not comment on whether state officials have responded to the Justice Department. Daryl Robinson, spokesman for Olens, said in an e-mail: “We have been in contact with the Department of Justice since receiving the letter, but we have not responded formally in writing.  For the time being we do not intend to comment further on this matter.”

The Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support program (GNETS) started in 1970 in a single educational center in Athens, and now consists of a network of “psycho-education centers” in 24 regions around the state with a total of about 5,000 students at any given time. The letter, which notes that state officials cooperated with the probe, says that investigators concluded that the state has violated ADA’s Title II, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in nearly all services, programs, and activities provided to the public by state and local governments. It also describes the effects of the program, quoting one as saying, “School is like prison where I am in the weird class.”

It says in part:

Students in the GNETS Program also often lack access to electives and extracurricular activities, such as after-school athletics or clubs. Moreover, many of the students in the GNETS Program attend school in inferior facilities in various states of disrepair that lack many of the features and amenities of general education schools, such as gymnasiums, cafeterias, libraries, science labs, music rooms, or playgrounds. Some GNETS Centers are located in poor-quality buildings that formerly served as schools for black students during de jure segregation, which have been repurposed to house the GNETS Program.

As for how the segregation affects students, the letter says in part:

The negative effects of inappropriate segregation faced by students in the GNETS Program are readily apparent. One student in the GNETS Program stated, “school is like prison where I am in the weird class.” He attributes this in large part to isolation and distance from other students in the general education community, as he does not have the opportunity to interact with these students during the school day. According to a number of other students we spoke with, the GNETS Program denies them some of the most basic elements of a typical childhood school experience. One student reported feeling frustrated and “like an outcast” in the GNETS Program, and was upset about not having a school locker like “normal” high school students. Another parent remarked that her daughter, who attends the GNETS Program, desperately wishes to have her picture taken and included in a yearbook, as all her friends in general education schools do, as this would give her a sense of belonging and community that she craves. We learned that students in the GNETS Program also face substantial stigma, with one parent stating, “once you are in GNETS you are considered a ‘bad kid.’ It’s a warehouse for kids the school system doesn’t want or know how to deal with.” Several parents and students with whom we spoke compared the GNETS Program to prisons, because the students were unable to interact with their non-disabled peers and they felt trapped in the GNETS Program.

It also says that thousands of students have been affected.

Most students in the GNETS Program spend their entire school day, including meals, exclusively with other students with disabilities in the Program. Most of the GNETS Centers across the State are physically separated from general education schools. Two-thirds, or about 3,100 GNETS Program students, attended school in a segregated GNETS Center during the 2012-13 school year, where they had little to no opportunity to interact with peers outside the GNETS Program. Similarly, we found that many GNETS Classrooms, even though located in or adjacent to general education schools, do not enable students to interact with their peers who are not in the GNETS Program. Many GNETS Classrooms are isolated in the basements or wholly-segregated wings of general education schools, with separate entrances exclusively for use by students in the GNETS Program. Other GNETS Classrooms are in separate buildings or trailers on the campuses of general education schools. These Classrooms function more like GNETS Centers, where students have no opportunities to interact with peers outside the Program or to participate in many of the activities and services offered in the general education environment.

Here’s the full letter: