U.S. Justice Department sues Georgia Department of Education

Data courtesy of the Georgia Department of Education

Data courtesy of the Georgia Department of Education

The Southerner

By Mei Nathan
The U.S Department of Justice, DOJ, filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia and its Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS) program.

According to Georgia’s Department of Education, the program provides educational support to 4,000 to 5,000 students with emotional and behavioral disorders each year.

“GNETS is a critical resource for the children it serves, many of whom would otherwise face isolation in residential treatment facilities,” Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods said.

The Aug. 23 lawsuit came after the justice department initially sent a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens in July 2015 alleging GNETS programs were violating Title II of the Americans Disabilities Act. Title II prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by public entities.

“This is the Brown vs. Board of Education for kids with disabilities,” said Craig Goodmark, an education civil rights attorney who represents children with disabilities in public school proceedings at Atlanta Legal Aid. “This is a case that says separating people because of their differences and creating separate programs is unequal.”

Atlanta lawyer, Alexa Ross, who will represent the state, could not comment on the pending litigation.

A Broken System

GNETS began in 1970 in Athens at the Rutland Center. Based on a model designed by Dr. Mary Wood, a special education professor at the University of Georgia, the center aimed to help children with psychological problems. By 1976, 24 GNETS programs were established throughout Georgia.

“GNETS was created as a step Georgia has in the continuum of placement options for kids,” said Frances Holt, Atlanta Public Schools Special Education Coordinator. “In APS, we are working really hard with our GNETS program to make sure we are providing access to programing and to behavioral support.”

Although the state intends to resist federal pressure to end the psychoeducational schools, in late July 2016 the state ordered nine facilities to close before the start of the school year. This was in response to inspections showing mold, leaking roofs, asbestos and lead-based paint.

“I’ve been to [schools] that are just like the DOJ described them: old, dilapidated, forgotten school buildings,” Goodmark said. “There are students served at GNETS in a regular education building, but they attend school in portables behind the building or in locked hallways.”

In addition to finding inadequate buildings, incidents have been filed about the treatment of children in psychoeducational schools. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found teachers restrained children with dog leashes, solitary confinement was used as punishment and psychologists performed behavioral experiments.

“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,” said Vanita Gupta, an assistant U.S. Attorney General.

While this is the first time the DOJ has challenged a state-run school system for segregating children with disabilities, the state has faced lawsuits regarding treatment of disabled citizens in the past. In 1999, Atlanta Legal Aid defended Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women with mental illnesses who were institutionalized, in the case of Olmstead vs. L.C. The U.S Supreme Court protected their rights under the ADA.

Classes Divided

The DOJ is relying on the principles protected under Olmstead vs. L.C. as it seeks to integrate schools.

Many GNETS institutions lack art, music, foreign language, gifted education courses, and in some cases, physical education.

“Often times special education students are put in the arts, music, theater, visual arts and they thrive,” said Valerie Williams, art and fashion teacher at Grady. The arts has always been a voice for the voiceless — whether it be mental issues, physical issues, emotional issues.”

In addition to having opportunities such as art or physical education, Goodmark believes the integration of children with disabilities is socially beneficial.

“If a child is in a setting where appropriate behavior is modeled, then the behaviors that are disrupting their ability to learn can be replaced with appropriate behavior,” Goodmark said. “On a social level, there’s opportunity for [students] to interact with non-disabled peers and to participate in a traditional educational experience with all the good that comes with that — being able to attend football games, school dances or school clubs.”

For children in the Grady cluster, there are many teaching styles offered, such as a general education class with a paraprofessional, who works solely with a disabled student. There is also a co-taught class with a special education teacher and a general education teacher or a resource room, which is self-contained with a small number of special education students.

One Family’s Choice

Parents Dorothy and James Rehg decided to enroll their daughter, Katherine, who was diagnosed with down syndrome, in the Grady cluster, despite pressures from APS to place her in a self-contained classroom.

“It’s stressful because [APS] said basically sign and agree she goes [to Toomer Elementary] or she will get no services at all,” Dorothy Rehg said. “You’re kind of backed against the wall if you get someone telling you what you should do for your child.”

Because Mary Lin Elementary did not have the proper amenities at the time, it was a year until Katherine went through her evaluation process to receive her Individualized Education Plan, which was tailored to fit Katherine’s needs.

“I thank Ms. Arillo (Katherine’s kindergarten teacher) everyday that she was open and welcoming to Katherine in her classroom,” Rehg said. “I don’t think it’s a good service to keep them in a self-contained classroom all throughout school and then expect them to live in the community with a general population after keeping them isolated so long.”

Holt, however, said students in GNETS program are able to  participate in school events and interact with the community if the student shows interest.

“GNETS tries to support the family with social workers, wraparound agencies or mental health services,” Holt said. “We are trying to work together as a team to keep the best interest at heart.”

Rehg, however, believes all students in an inclusive classroom benefit from everyday interactions.

“When [Katherine] started in kindergarten, someone said something mean to her and the other children came and told the Ms. Arillo,” Rehg said. “They had a conversation about how they would feel if this happened and what they could do; it was a real hands-on training of how to stand up for another. Seeing they’re human beings develops empathy in the other students; they’re just another classmate.”

Teacher Support

Teachers will adapt lesson plans and facilitate in-class activities to accommodate special education students.

“We just did a hand-blown egg project; all my students did them,” Williams said. “Some of them couldn’t blow out the yolk, so I did that part, but they were able to draw and adorn their egg.”

Paraprofessionals will shadow specific students to their classes and help with a number of tasks. Gloria Wright, a paraprofessional who has worked at Grady for 10 years, believes this method blends the best of the two classrooms — the connection with students in a general class and the individualized attention the student may require.

“My student is not able to hold a pencil and write, so he will tell me the answers, and I will write for him,” Wright said. “I serve as a writing tool; he gives me the answers. They need to be able to interact with the other students. If they didn’t, they would feel like they’re just isolated from the student body at Grady.”

While the Justice Department has not specifically said all GNETS programs should be closed, Goodmark hopes the GNETS students are reintegrated and the $70 million budget is used for the development of more comprehensive behavioral support for students with disabilities.

“For the majority of students in GNETS, it would not take an intensive effort to support them,” Goodmark said. “It simply would take a thoughtful effort to ensure that they were provided the behavioral assessments and the planning that’s needed to support them and address their needs.”

Wright, who had previously applied to be a paraprofessional at a GNETS program, believes reintegration will be initially challenging since the students have not had much exposure to a traditional setting.

“You have to make the student feel welcome and calm, so speaking softly instead of just yelling at them,” Wright said. “They are human beings just like the rest of us and they want to be treated fairly, just like we want to be.”