Georgia illegally segregates students with disabilities, DOJ says

Georgia illegally segregates thousands of students with behavioral disorders in schools that often are dirty, in poor repair and, in some cases, once served as blacks-only facilities before court-ordered integration, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Wednesday.

In a strongly worded letter to Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens, the DOJ said the state is "unnecessarily segregating students with disabilities from their peers." Further, the letter said, those students receive inferior instruction and have few if any opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities.

"Students with disabilities who have been inappropriately segregated from their peers without disabilities also face tremendous ongoing harms: they may become victims of unwanted stigma and may be deprived of essential opportunities to learn and to develop skills enabling them to effectively engage with their peers in ways that teach them to participate in mainstream society as they mature into adulthood," the DOJ said.

The department said the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, which operates in 24 locations around the state, is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. If Georgia doesn't make substantial changes, the department could take the state to court to force improvements.

The so-called GNETS schools date to 1970 and once were officially known as "psycho-ed" institutions. About 5,000 students attend the schools, often after their home schools have declared their behavioral or mental health issues to be disruptive for other children.

State officials had no immediate response to the Justice Department.

The schools attracted attention several years ago after a 13-year-old Hall County boy hanged himself in an isolation room at a GNETS facility in Gainesville.

At the Alpine program in Gainesville, a school for children with severe behavior disorders, autism and brain injuries, student Jonathan King committed suicide in a seclusion room on Nov. 15, 2004. (Photo credit: Alan Judd)

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2009, Jonathan King had been placed in a locked, windowless room, with no food or water, and with no one directly observing him, despite his previous threats of suicide. School personnel allowed the boy to take a section of multicolored rope into the room, which he used to hang himself.

Documents later showed that the boy had been placed in seclusion 19 times over 29 days in the fall of 2004. His confinements averaged 94 minutes.

The Justice Department did not address seclusion, restraint or other questionable behavior-control tactics used at GNETS schools. However, it described multiple cases of segregation that prevented disabled students from interacting with others.

At a school in Cordele, students with behavioral disorders must use segregated restrooms. They have separate lunch periods. They have to enter through a special door and, unlike their peers without disabilities, pass through a metal detector.

In Rome, students in the GNETS program aren’t allowed to engage with other students – or even leave the basement.

“School,” one student said, “is like prison where I am in the weird class.”

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