State school superintendent 'disappointed' by U.S. suit alleging illegal segregation

A day after the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state of Georgia, alleging illegal segregation in the state's unique network of "psychoeducational" schools, Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods says he is "disappointed."

Woods had no immediate comment Tuesday when lawsuit concerning the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS, was filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. Late Wednesday, however, his office released this statement:

“We just received the notification from DOJ and we are analyzing it. GNETS is a critical resource for the children it serves, many of whom would otherwise face isolation in residential treatment facilities. We are disappointed in the DOJ’s decision to sue, especially given the tremendous efforts we've put into enhancing the educational experience for the small percentage of children who receive education services from GNETS programs. We believe these efforts are working, and we have communicated that to the DOJ. GNETS programs remain a legal alternative for children for whom placement in the general education population is not, at least for some period of time, an effective or appropriate option. We will continue to make the wellbeing of these children our first priority.”

The Justice Department disagrees with virtually everything in Woods' statement.

By placing students with behavioral and emotional disorders in segregated buildings or classrooms, the lawsuit said, the state is "depriving students in GNETS of the opportunity to benefit from the stimulation and range of interactions that occur in general education schools, including opportunities to learn with, observe, and be influenced by their non-disabled peers."

Such segregation, the department alleged, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also runs counter to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that people with disabilities cannot be placed in "unjustified segregation" for the delivery of public services, the lawsuit said.

"When provided with appropriate mental health and therapeutic educational services and supports," the lawsuit said, "the vast majority of the students with disabilities in the GNETS program could participate in the curriculum, instruction, elective courses, extracurricular activities and other educational enhancement services in general education classrooms with their peers."

As for "enhancing the educational experience" of GNETS students, as Woods put it, Justice Department officials acknowledge the state has adopted some changes (including a ban on the use of isolation). But federal officials say that the recent closing of nine GNETS schools for health or safety reasons did little to alleviate the segregation, since the students were simply moved to other segregated settings.

The South Metro GNETS school in Fulton County is one of 24 psychoeducational programs across the state.

Georgia schools assign 4,000 to 5,000 students to GNETS each year, including about 125 children in kindergarten or pre-kindergarten. About two-thirds attend freestanding "centers" where all classrooms are populated by disabled children. The rest take GNETS classes in segregated portions of general-education schools.

At one facility, the lawsuit said, GNETS students were confined to a basement, never allowed to interact with other students. Many GNETS schools are old and poorly maintained, the lawsuit said, including some that housed black students during the Jim Crow era.

The lawsuit did not address racial disparities in GNETS enrollment, first reported last spring in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The newspaper also reported on psychological experimentation on GNETS students and the extensive use of physical restraint to control behavior.

 Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said in an interview Tuesday that the state might not have to close all the GNETS schools, so long as it provides education and therapy to all students in the least-restrictive appropriate setting.

But "we believe the state has declined to fund appropriate services in integrated settings," she said. One purpose of the lawsuit, she said, is to "make sure students with these disabilities have options."

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author