Marathon hearing ends with questions about psychoeducational schools

Even after four hours of arguments regarding Georgia’s network of psychoeducational schools this week, a federal judge had more questions for attorneys on both sides.

“I just don’t want to get this wrong,” Judge Michael Brown said.

The state attorney general's office is arguing for the dismissal of a class action lawsuit filed in October 2017 by the Georgia Advocacy Office, a Decatur-based organization. It claims the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support program, which serves students recommended due to emotional or behavioral disorders, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. The suit alleges "unnecessary segregation" and unequal education opportunities.

State officials would not comment on the pending litigation. It’s unclear when Brown could rule.

2016 Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative series found 54 percent of students in Georgia's psychoeducational programs were African American, compared to 37 percent in all public schools statewide. In half of the 24 programs, black enrollment exceeds 60 percent. The AJC's investigation also looked at the use of physical restraint and seclusion employed as disciplinary measures. In 2004, a young teen hanged himself after being locked for hours in a 8-by-8 concrete-block room called a a "time-out" area.

The AJC’s series is referenced in the lawsuit. About 5,200 students were in the GNETS programs in 2016, according to the suit. The current number is 3,787, according to the Georgia Department of Education.

“When kids are segregated and kept in places away from quickly developing peers, they don’t get the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers,” Devon Orland, litigation director for the Georgia Advocacy Office, said during an interview this week. “They are not only harmed by the differences in educational experiences, but they’re also harmed by being treated as less important.”

During the hearing, the judge didn’t focus on whether the program fails to provide a quality education, as the lawsuit alleges. Instead, he wondered whether the legal action had been filed against the proper defendant.

“You sue the person who is hands-on mistreating someone,” Brown said. Individual schools or school districts aren’t named in the lawsuit, which named as defendants then Gov. Nathan Deal and other officials, several state agencies and the state itself.

Three students, identified only by their initials in the lawsuit, allegedly suffered academically and sometimes physically while enrolled in the programs, the filing claims.

Documents also say the students’ schooling consisted mostly of virtual lessons delivered via computer and supervised by a paraprofessional, that the students were not offered any extracurricular activities and that two of them were repeatedly physically restrained.

“Many centers have no library, cafeteria, gym, science lab, music room or playground,” the filing says. “During school hours, GNETS students have little, if any, opportunity to interact with their non-disabled peers.”