Georgia psychoeducational schools an unconstitutional 'dumping ground,' new suit claims

Credit: Alan Judd

Credit: Alan Judd

Georgia uses its unique network of psychoeducational schools as a "dumping ground" for unwanted students with disabilities, a new class-action lawsuit claims.

The suit, filed Wednesday by several advocacy groups on behalf of three parents, accuses state officials of violating federal law and the U.S. Constitution by placing disabled children in segregated schools and classrooms operated by the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS.

Each year, the lawsuit claims, Georgia relegates thousands of students with disabilities to “a network of unequal and separate institutions and classrooms,” the only one of its kind. Those students, the suit says, “are denied the opportunity to be educated in classrooms with their non-disabled peers.”

Citing a 2016 investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the suit claims that by assigning a disproportionately high number of African-American children to GNETS, the state violates Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of equal protection under the law. The suit also alleges the state disregards its own regulations that restrict GNETS to students who cannot be educated elsewhere.

“GNETS are not placements of the last resort but instead are ‘dumping grounds’ … for students whom local school districts do not want to educate,” the suit alleges.

Through a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education, state officials declined to comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, largely tracks a 2016 case in which the federal government claims Georgia illegally segregates students with disabilities. More than a year of negotiations failed to produce a settlement, and now the state says the Justice Department lacks the authority to enforce laws granting civil rights to disabled people. The case is on hold indefinitely while a federal appeals court considers the state's arguments.

The class-action case will help ensure that GNETS complaints receive a hearing even if the Justice Department loses its appeal – or if the department de-emphasizes civil-rights enforcement.

“This is definitely a way to get our hands on the rudder,” said Leslie Lipson, a lawyer with the Georgia Advocacy Office, which filed the suit along with the Center for Public Representation, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and The Arc. Attorneys from the Goodmark Law Firm in Atlanta and DLA Piper in Boston also are involved in the case.

The lawsuit alleges GNETS students receive an inferior education and are often denied extracurricular activities and such basic amenities as science labs, libraries and gymnasiums. The graduation rate for GNETS students is 10 percent, the suit says, far below the statewide rate of 78 percent.

All the students named in the lawsuit allegedly suffered academic and physical injury in GNETS.

“Q.H.,” a 9-year-old boy with autism, attention deficit disorder and developmental delays, has been physically restrained numerous times, the suit says. On at least one occasion, he received injuries requiring medical treatment.

“C.S.,” 13, entered a GNETS program five years ago after his home school told his parents it was the boy’s only option. In the sixth grade, the suit says, he spent much of the school year lying on a classroom floor, watching videos, receiving no therapy for his autism.

“R.F.,” also 13, was assigned to GNETS in December 2014 because of his mood disorders. After staff members restrained him numerous times, causing physical injury, his mother removed him from the GNETS program. But the school system told her the boy either could attend GNETS or no school at all, the suit says. The mother finally got her son readmitted to a regular school this year.

But now the boy receives no therapy for behavioral issues, the suit says – and he is at risk of being reassigned to GNETS.