The Obama administration on Tuesday sued the state of Georgia over its treatment of thousands of students with behavioral disabilities, alleging that the state is unnecessarily segregating those children in schools that lack extracurricular activities and other basic amenities, including gymnasiums, libraries and certified teachers.

The Justice Department’s complaint, filed in a U.S. District Court in Georgia, also alleges that many of the 4,600 children who are enrolled in the state-run program for students with disabilities are taught via computer programs, and that many go to school in poor-quality facilities once used as schools for black children during the days of Jim Crow. The lawsuit seeks to force the state to provide students with the services they need in integrated, general-education settings, where they can interact with — and have the same educational opportunities as — their non-disabled peers.

U.S. probe into Georgia special ed program could have national impact

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the lawsuit represents the first time the department has challenged a state-run school system for segregating children with disabilities. Gupta said she couldn’t comment on whether Justice is planning similar challenges in other states.

“But we do think that the challenge here sends an important message nationwide about the need to ensure that students with disabilities aren’t unnecessarily segregated,” Gupta said. In practice, she said, that means states must provide students with disabilities the particular therapeutic services they need in general-education schools.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal (R) referred inquiries to the state’s education department. When reached by email Tuesday, a spokesman for the state education department said the department did not have any immediate comment.

The lawsuit comes one year after a Justice investigation concluded that the Georgia program — known as the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS — was discriminating against students with disabilities and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. In a July 2015 letter of findings, Justice officials described how GNETS students felt they were in prison, isolated from other children.

“It’s a warehouse for kids the school system doesn’t want or know how to deal with,” one parent told investigators.

Justice asked state officials to reform the program, and state officials say they are in the midst of a “comprehensive review” of each GNETS facility, classroom and student, according to a letter their lawyer sent to DOJ last month. But the two sides have been unable to agree on the terms of a voluntary settlement, so Justice turned to the courts.

Activists have welcomed the Justice Department’s pressure on Georgia and the legal tack it has chosen: DOJ is not alleging that Georgia has violated the nation’s main law for protecting the interests of special education students — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Instead, the department is focusing on the state’s alleged failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a tool legal experts say is much more powerful.

Advocates believe that Justice’s use of ADA to press for desegregation of the Georgia program, coupled with case law emerging from courts in the past several years, will force many school districts to reexamine whether they are unlawfully segregating students with disabilities.