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September 04, 2015 Practice Points

Georgia Guilty of Segregation of Students with Behavioral and Educational Disabilities

By Jessalyn Schwartz

In an investigation completed in July, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has found that Georgia has been illegally segregating thousands of students suffering from behavioral, emotional, and educational disabilities and placing them in substandard facilities with insufficient educational programs. The investigation found that students were being placed in buildings without gyms, cafeterias, libraries, labs, playgrounds, and more.

The DOJ detailed its findings in a letter to Georgia's governor and attorney general in early July, noting that schools acted prematurely in moving children out of the regular education classroom, and recommending them for placement in alternative schools after one or multiple minor incidents. Parents are feeling pressured to sign off on these placements, and students are falling significantly behind, missing out on school involvement, such as sports and extracurriculars, ultimately leading to worsening behavior. The students are largely placed in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS) which was found to be largely unnecessary by the investigation. Most of the students were shown to be able to remain in their mainstream classrooms if provided with more behavioral or mental health services.

In 2010, GNETS was criticized by a state audit for not being cost-effective and for failing to be accountable for student performance. In 2014, a thirteen year-old boy committed suicide after hours in an isolation room in one of GNETS programs. The DOJ has threatened a lawsuit if the problems are not addressed through redirection of services, training, and resources to shift students back into the regular education programs. Spokespersons for Georgia's governor, attorney general, and Department of Education all declined to comment on this matter.

Keywords: children's rights, litigation, segregation, behavioral disabilities, emotional disabilities, educational disabilities, GNETS, Georgia, education

Jessalyn Schwartz is a member of the ABA Children and the Law Advisory Task Force in Boston, Massachusetts.

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