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With Federal Suit Stalled, Ga. Advocates File Special Education Complaint

Court-building-plaque-560x292-Blog-Getty.jpgGeorgia advocates have taken up the legal fight against a state-run network of schools that have been faulted for isolating students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. 

The Georgia Advocacy Organization and several partners filed a complaint Wednesday against the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS. It argues that the students in the program are isolated from their peers in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that they are provided an inferior education.

The complaint states that families often consent to the restrictive placement because, they're told, it's the only place their children can get the services they need. 

"Yet, after doing so, they are sadly disappointed. Their child fails to receive services to help address their behavioral needs, and in many cases, the child's symptoms or behaviors worsen due to the harsh and punitive environment that prevails in GNETS," the complaint states. 

Created in 1972, GNETS is the only program of its kind in the country. It is intended to provide educational and therapeutic support to school-aged children who otherwise might be placed in residential schools because of the severity of their behavior. But in recent years, GNETS has been the focus of critical investigations by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, including for the use of restraint and seclusion. In a 2010 audit, the state auditor's office said the program could not demonstrate effectiveness.

In 2015, the Justice Department released an extensive "letter of findings" cataloguing violations in the program, and after negotiations went nowhere, filed a lawsuit against the state. 

But that suit has stalled indefinitely over an issue that has nothing to do with the program itself. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which includes Georgia, will decide whether the Justice Department has the legal authority, or "standing," to file these kinds of lawsuits. 

If the Justice Department is found not to have standing, the case crumbles. If the federal lawsuit were allowed to proceed, it could end up being settled under terms that local groups might not like, said Leslie Lipson, an attorney with the Georgia Advocacy Office. 

"We, as nonparties, could never control how they would settle," Lipson said. "As local stakeholders, it's the idea of being the captain of your ship and enforcing the civil rights of the students in your state, and not leaving it up to a federal agency." And as private parties, there's no question that the local advocates have the standing to bring the case, Lipson said.

A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education said Wednesday that the agency had no comment at this time.

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