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Federal Lawsuit Against Georgia School Network Alleges Disability-Law Violations

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the state of Georgia, alleging that a state-run network of schools for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities unnecessarily segregates those students from their peers. 

The lawsuit was expected. Last week, the Justice Department sent a letter to state officials saying that after months of negotiation, it saw no other option but to pursue legal action. 

About 4,600 students attend the 24 schools that are a part of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS. Located around the state, these students are officially enrolled in their home districts, but are assigned to these separate placements if they have emotional or behavior disabilities that are considered severe. The program, which enrolls children ages 3-21, has operated for 40 years. 

In its lawsuit against the state, the Justice Department said that for the vast majority of students, such segregation is unnecessary and thus is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The complaint also refers to the results of an investigation Justice Department officials did back in 2015, which noted that students were housed in shoddy facilities, were often not given access to any art, music, foreign language, vocational courses or gifted education courses, and in some cases were not given access to physical education.

I wrote about the GNETS program in 2015 after the Justice Department released its letter of findings. In addition, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a three-part series on GNETS, saying that the school network had a disproportionate enrollment of black students and that students in the program were restrained far more than students at other schools in the state 

The Georgia governor's office said it was not a party to the suit and referred an inquiry to the state Department of Education, which oversees the program. The Education Department did not have a response Tuesday. 

Leslie Lipson, an attorney at the nonprofit Georgia Advocacy Office, said that a coalition of groups that oppose the GNETS program had been trying unsuccessfully to meet with state officials for months.

"We're disappointed that the negotiations weren't fruitful," Lipson said. "But we're encouraged that the Department of Justice is continuing its enforcement of the ADA." 

UPDATE (Aug. 24) Georgia State Superintendent of Education Richard Woods has released a 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.

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