Jeff Sessions' special education views raise questions about Ga. lawsuit

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, has a long history of acerbic comments: criticism of the NAACP for "un-American" activities, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and zealous defense of keeping marijuana illegal, to name a few.

But the Alabama senator's statements about a lesser-known target – federal law on special education – may have a big impact in Georgia if the Senate confirms his appointment.

Related: Progeny of segregated South, nominee evokes turbulent past

On May 18, 2000, Sessions delivered lengthy remarks on the Senate floor criticizing the federal law that protects the rights of children with disabilities: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

The law guarantees a “free and appropriate public education” to all children, regardless of disability. Generally, the law says children with emotional, physical or behavioral disabilities have a right to be educated with peers who are not disabled. Otherwise, schools must show that a disabled student cannot receive an adequate education except in a more-restrictive setting.

When Congress was considering an extension of IDEA, Sessions said he supported the concept behind the law – but not its execution.

IDEA had spawned “lawsuit after lawsuit, special treatment for certain children,” he said. He described the law as “a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.”

Students who “could not, or would not, behave” were taking advantage of their special legal status, Sessions said. “… We are telling special children with physical disabilities, or disabilities as defined by the federal law, that they don’t have to adhere to the same standards other children do.”

He recited letters Alabama educators complaining that special education students had defied discipline and told their teachers, “They can’t do anything to me.”

He added: “I do not remember hearing of gun shootings prior to 1975 when Congress began telling 10 percent of our students you are not responsible.”

(It is not clear from a transcript of Sessions’ speech whether he was quoting an educator or making that assertion himself.)

All of this is important to Georgia. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit last year claiming the state violates the rights of disabled students assigned to so-called psychoeducational schools, segregated from children without disabilities.

The federal lawsuit is based on another statute, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Still, it asserts that students with disabilities have a right to be educated in the least restrictive setting. The Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support fails to meet that standard, the Justice Department alleged.

(Read The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's series on GNETS.)

Georgia says the Justice Department lacks authority to enforce the disabilities act and that some students cannot be adequately served in integrated settings.

If Sessions becomes attorney general, he could simply drop the lawsuit. Or he could settle it on terms favorable to the state.

Ahead of Sessions' confirmation hearing, scheduled to begin today, groups representing disabled children and their families have called for the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject his nomination.

For instance, the Council on Parent Attorneys and Advocates criticized Sessions for “scapegoating” disabled children and advocating that they be segregated in special programs – the essence of the case against Georgia.