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Georgia closes psychoeducational schools in bid to avert federal lawsuit, advocates say


Georgia’s decision to abruptly close nine so-called psychoeducational schools signals that negotiations to avert a federal civil-rights lawsuit have broken down, a coalition of advocacy groups says.

The Georgia Coalition on Educational Equity says the closures appear intended to give the impression that state officials are trying to improve the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS. The network is the only one of its kind in the nation, a system of separate – and, by most accounts, unequal – schools for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

The state Board of Education ordered nine of 48 GNETS facilities closed, just days before a new school year begins, because inspectors found numerous problems with the buildings: among them, mold, overloaded electrical circuits and leaking roofs, along with what may have been asbestos and peeling lead-based paint.

But the closures don’t mean that students in the facilities will be integrated into classrooms with children without disabilities. Instead, they will be moved en masse to other locations; in Glynn County, for example, the GNETS students are being moved into a school district office building.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in July 2015 that it was investigating whether the state was illegally segregating disabled students in GNETS schools. Federal authorities say the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that the students be educated in the least-restrictive appropriate setting. That is often interpreted to mean in classrooms with non-disabled students.

The Justice Department is required to negotiate a settlement with the targets of civil-rights investigations. If talks don’t produce an agreement, the department can file a lawsuit to force compliance with the law.

The Justice Department has made no public statements about whether it plans to sue Georgia over the GNETS schools.

In January, lawyers for the state disputed the Justice Department’s contention that GNETS operated in substandard, dangerous buildings.

“The state acknowledges that some GNETS facilities are in need of repair,” the lawyers wrote. “However, some would argue the same about certain general education schools in Georgia – or, we suspect, in any other state in the country.”

So the sudden decision to close some of the facilities struck disability-rights advocates as somewhat disingenuous.

“These buildings did not just become unsafe in the last three months,” the advocacy groups wrote to state education officials this week. “The timing of the state’s actions is curious – on the heels of negotiations breaking down between the state and the DOJ – and appears more as an attempt to build a defense to potential litigation and less, if at all, about student safety.”

“It is a missed opportunity,” the groups wrote, “that the state is simply assisting students to move to another segregated setting, albeit a physically improved one.”

The Georgia Department of Education disputed the advocacy groups' version of events:

"The closing of the nine stand-alone sites was not related to a breakdown in negotiations with the DOJ as they are still ongoing," Matt Cordoza, a department spokesman, said in an email. "It was a process that was a focus for GaDOE prior to the DOJ letter of findings. Results related to facilities were reported in the Office of Planning and Budget Program Evaluation dated January 2015 and the DOJ letter of findings was dated July 2015."

Other officials said last week they had begun reviewing GNETS even before the Justice Department opened its investigation. But over the past year, state inspectors visited each GNETS facility. "Many of them," said Mike Royal, chairman of the state Board of Education, "had multiple, multiple safety issues."

The state also is reviewing records for all GNETS students to determine if they were appropriately placed in the program. More than 3,000 students were enrolled in GNETS programs last fall.

In a series of articles this spring, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a vastly disproportionate number of students assigned to GNETS are African-American, creating a system where children are segregated not just by disability, but also by race.

In addition, the Journal-Constitution reported that GNETS programs are far more likely than other Georgia schools to physically restrain students. The newspaper also detailed the use of psychological experiments and even dog leashes to control disruptive children.

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