U.S. suit says state’s schools for disabled are illegally segregated

A lawsuit alleging Georgia violates the civil rights of disabled children as young as 4 marks the first time the U.S. government has formally challenged the segregation of students with disabilities in a state-run school system.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Georgia Tuesday, saying it hopes to “vindicate the rights of the thousands of students unnecessarily segregated” in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS.

The lawsuit accuses Georgia of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring some students with behavioral or emotional disorders to attend the so-called psychoeducational schools. Many students in GNETS don’t get adequate instruction or mental health treatment, the lawsuit says, and some are forced to attend classes in decrepit buildings that housed black students in the Jim Crow era.

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,” the lawsuit says. With “appropriate mental health and therapeutic educational services and supports,” the suit says, most disabled students would thrive in traditional schools.

State officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Georgia schools assign 4,000 to 5,000 children to GNETS each year – including, the lawsuit says, about 125 kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students.

“That goes to show how young students are who are being funneled into segregated settings,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in an interview.

The state may not necessarily be required to close all GNETS programs. But the lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court in Atlanta to order Georgia to place all disabled students in “the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs,” as federal law requires.

“We believe the state has declined to fund appropriate services in integrated settings,” Gupta said. The lawsuit, she said, is intended “to make sure students with these disabilities have options.”

Georgia can comply with federal law without spending more than the $72 million in state and federal money it allocated this year for GNETS, the lawsuit contends.

The Justice Department sued after months of negotiations with state lawyers ended with no agreement. Gupta said negotiations could resume, or the case could go to trial.

The state created its psychoeducational network in the 1970s at the end of an era in which disabled children often were institutionalized for life. The schools operated with little oversight or public scrutiny until 2004, when a student at a Gainesville GNETS program hanged himself in a locked isolation room.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last spring that a disproportionate number of African-American students are assigned to GNETS, segregated by race as well as disability.

The Justice Department’s investigation did not examine racial disparities in enrollment, Gupta said. But she said requiring the state to serve all disabled students in less-restrictive settings would provide “a remedy to ensure students can be appropriately integrated.”

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