AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Georgia still hasn't responded to DOJ charges of segregating students with disabilities

A month has passed since the U.S. Department of Justice accused Georgia of illegally segregating students with behavioral and psychiatric disorders in a network of so-called psychoeducational schools. But so far the state has not formally responded – and apparently isn’t planning to do so anytime soon.

All that state officials have told the Justice Department’s civil rights division so far is they want a meeting “to discuss the issues,” said Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

The state “does not agree with DOJ’s letter,” Cardoza said Thursday by email, but officials have not yet put that – or anything else – in writing.

Following a two-year investigation, the Justice Department sent a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens on July 15, saying Georgia segregates thousands of students in schools that often are dirty and in poor repair. Many of the facilities operated for the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support lack basic amenities, the letter said: gymnasiums and libraries, for instance, not to mention reliable air conditioning.

At one GNETS facility located within a regular-education school, the Justice Department said, the program’s students are forced to use segregated restrooms, have a separate lunch period from other students, and are required to pass through a metal detector at a GNETS-only entrance. At another GNETS facility, students were reportedly kept in the basement all day, out of sight of students in regular programs.

The Justice Department demanded that the state remove students from segregated programs and provide mental health and behavioral services and classroom instruction “in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

If the state doesn’t comply, the department could file a lawsuit to force corrections.

The Justice Department clearly left the next move up to the state. Which, as Cardoza said, would be a meeting – although, as yet, it has not been scheduled. Cardoza said lawyers in the attorney general’s office have worked with education officials and others to plan for that meeting, should it occur.

Beyond that, state officials have little to say about the matter.

“Unless or until DOJ and the state of Georgia are able to reach some resolution of the concerns outlined in DOJ’s letter, it would be improper to discuss the details of any discussions or proposals,” Cardoza said.

However, he said the education agency “is committed to working diligently and cooperatively with others and DOJ in an effort to address any issues that may need to be resolved in a manner that is in the best interest of Georgia’s students.”

The GNETS schools, once formally known as psychoeducational facilities, operated in obscurity for decades. But five years ago, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Jonathan King, a 13-year-old who hanged himself in solitary confinement at a GNETS facility in Gainesville. A state audit later found that educating the 5,000 or so students enrolled in GNETS would be cheaper in regular-education settings.

Now, following the Justice Department’s allegations, GNETS is receiving unprecedented national attention.

Over the past month, news stories have appeared on PBS NewsHour, on NPR, in The Washington Post (twice), on the website for the investigative news organization ProPublica, and on the magazine Mother Jones’ website.

Some of the national notice no doubt relates to the Southern Gothic elements of the story: children with disabilities locked away in dark, dank buildings, some of which were blacks-only schools during the Jim Crow era.

But the case also could shine light beyond Georgia on what has euphemistically been known for generations as “special” education. Federal law requires that states provide a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive setting for every child, and the outcome of the Justice Department’s dispute with Georgia could redefine what that means across the nation.

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