AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Delay in GNETS case not justified, U.S. says


Georgia seems to be running out the clock on a federal lawsuit alleging it illegally segregates students with disabilities in a unique psychoeducational school system.

In a new court filing, the U.S. Department of Justice argues against the state’s request to either dismiss or put on hold a lawsuit challenging the legality of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support.

The state claims a federal case in Florida raises questions about whether the Justice Department can enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act – precisely what it is trying to do in the GNETS suit.

But the Justice Department says the state is wrong about the Florida case and that waiting for its resolution could delay the GNETS suit for years.

In the meantime, the Justice Department says, “thousands of students with behavior-related disabilities in the GNETS program will bear the brunt of any delay in the relief sought here. With each passing school year, these students continue to endure unnecessary segregation and unequal educational opportunities, and many other students face serious risk of the same fate.”

The Justice Department sued the state last summer, alleging the state deprives thousands of disabled students of their rights to be educated in the least-restrictive appropriate environment.

The department alleges that GNETS prevents students with emotional and behavioral disorders from interacting with students who are not disabled. GNETS allegedly has failed to provide necessary mental health care and other treatment, and some of its facilities are decrepit structures once used as all-black schools during the Jim Crow era.

Georgia schools assign 4,000 to 5,000 children to GNETS each year. About 125 are in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this year that Georgia schools assign a disproportionate number of black students to GNETS. The newspaper also found that some GNETS programs conducted psychological experiments on disabled students and that physical restraints are used far more often on GNETS students than on other children in all public schools statewide.

In the new filing, the Justice Department also disputes the state’s claims that it doesn’t actually “administer” GNETS and, therefore, cannot be sued over the program’s operations.

The department notes that the state allocated more than $72 million to GNETS this year – one of the “myriad ways” in which Georgia runs the program. The state “determines which mental health and therapeutic educational services and supports to provide,” as well as “who will provide such services, in what settings services will be provided, and how to allocate and manage the state and federal funds earmarked for such services.”

The Justice Department did not mention another factor that could be playing into the state’s request for a delay.

Political appointees who run the department – and, especially, its civil rights division – will leave office next month. President-elect Donald Trump has nominated U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be attorney general. Nominations for lower-level political jobs in the Justice Department, including the head of the civil rights division, aren’t likely for weeks, possibly months, after Sessions’ confirmation.

The department’s new leaders could agree to settle the case with terms favorable to the state – or could drop the suit altogether.


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