Justice Department sues Georgia for segregating students with behavioral disabilities

By Allen Cone   |   Aug. 24, 2016 at 9:58 AM
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ATLANTA, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- The Justice Department has filed suit against the state of Georgia for allegedly segregating students with behavioral or emotional problems in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The federal department announced Tuesday it hopes to "vindicate the rights of the thousands of students unnecessarily segregated" in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS. Approximately 4,600 students are in GNETS, including about 125 kindergarten and pre-K students.

Georgia is accused of requiring some students with behavioral or emotional disorders to attend so-called psychoeducational schools when they could instead be placed in general education settings.

In 1970, the first GNETS program was established in Athens, Ga., to serve as a prototype for the statewide network that grew to 24 programs by 1976. Students are referred by their local school system.

The ADA and the Supreme Court's decision in Olmstead vs. L.C. require states to provide services to people with disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. The Justice Department's complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

"Seventeen years ago, the Supreme Court made clear that states must serve people with disabilities, including children with disabilities, in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "Georgia has relegated thousands of students with behavior-related disabilities to separate, segregated and unequal settings, and placed other students at serious risk of entering such settings, failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act."

In July 2015, the department notified the state that it was violating the ADA, saying most students in GNETS spend their entire school day, including meals, exclusively with other students with disabilities.

State officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.

More than two-thirds of GNETS students are assigned to schools in regional centers far from students' homes.

"This complaint alleges that many children in the GNETS Program are consigned to dilapidated buildings that were formerly used for black children during segregation, or to classrooms that are locked apart from mainstream classrooms, with substantially fewer opportunities of participating in extracurricular activities like music, art and sports," said U.S. Attorney John A. Horn of the Northern District of Georgia.

The lawsuit further alleges mental health and therapeutic education are available in Georgia to a limited number of students with disabilities in integrated educational settings.

Georgia can comply with federal law by spending the $72 million in state and federal money it was allocated this year for GNETS, according to the lawsuit.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last spring reported a high number of African-American students are assigned to GNETS.

The lawsuit, however, did make allegations concerning the race of students enrolled in the program.

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