Georgia fights feds to keep schools for disabled

Nine unsafe psychoeducational buildings ordered to close immediately

Under investigation for violating the rights of disabled children, Georgia is pledging to overhaul its so-called psychoeducational schools.

But at the same time, the state is making clear it intends to continue resisting federal pressure to dismantle the schools, the only statewide system in the United States exclusively for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities.

Last week the state ordered nine psychoeducational facilities closed immediately, days before the start of a new academic year. Inspectors had found mold, overloaded electrical circuits and leaking roofs, along with what may have been asbestos and peeling lead-based paint.

State officials also are reviewing thousands of records to determine whether students were appropriately assigned to the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, known as GNETS. About 3,000 students attended the network’s schools last fall.

The dichotomy in the state’s posture — promising to fix a system it is vigorously defending even in the face of a possible federal civil-rights case — suggests an uncertain future for GNETS and for how Georgia educates disabled children.

Advocates for disabled children complained that even though nine GNETS facilities are closing, the students will be moved from one segregated setting to another, with little opportunity for educators or families to prepare for the disruption.

“The timing is highly suspect,” said Leslie Lipson, a lawyer for the Georgia Advocacy Office. “It is a defensive posture in anticipation of possible legal action.”

Keeping the students in segregated settings, Lipson said, is “a pretty significant perversion of the spirit and the letter of the law.”

The state’s actions come as it hopes to avert a lawsuit that could shut down GNETS altogether. A year ago this month, the U.S. Department of Justice charged that Georgia violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by segregating students with disabilities in GNETS schools, where they have no contact with students who are not disabled. Many GNETS schools lack libraries, gymnasiums and science labs. Some were blacks-only schools during the Jim Crow era.

In a letter to the Justice Department last week, lawyers for the state detailed what they called “serious work” under way to improve GNETS. But they left no doubt that the state will fight any federal intervention.

The state Department of Education, they wrote, “intends for GNETS to serve its intended purpose: providing an educational option that prevents students from leaving their families and communities for residential placement.”

Officials said Friday they began reviewing GNETS even before the Justice Department opened its investigation. The state Department of Education hired a new coordinator for the network, and lawmakers authorized issuing bonds to renovate GNETS schools.

“We’re ultimately responsible for these students,” Mike Royal, chairman of the state Board of Education, said Friday. “These kids deserve every educational opportunity and deserve the same high-quality facilities as every other child.”

Over the past year, Royal said, the agency sent inspectors to each of the 48 facilities operated by 24 regional GNETS programs. “Many of them,” he said, “had multiple, multiple safety issues.”

At Coastal Academy in Brunswick, for example, the inspectors discovered peeling paint inside and outside the building that could be lead-based. Window frames were rotting. Drinking fountains were no longer working and had been abandoned.

Royal said state officials also want to hold the GNETS programs accountable for student achievement and for providing needed therapies.

“Are these places where kids can get the educational environment they need, and are they safe?” he said. “Everything is on the table. Everything.”

GNETS launched four decades ago and operated with little public scrutiny until 2004, when 13-year-old Jonathan King hanged himself in a locked seclusion room in a GNETS school in Gainesville. Earlier this year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Georgia’s public schools assign a vastly disproportionate number of African-American students to the psychoeducational programs, segregating them not just by disability but also by race.

The newspaper found that GNETS teachers had used a dog leash to restrain students, that a psychologist had performed behavioral experiments on troubled children, and that chronically disruptive students had spent time in solitary confinement.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter recently helped form a coalition of advocacy groups that called on the state to cooperate with the Justice Department to “reform the outdated GNETS program,” as she wrote in a Journal-Constitution opinion piece on July 16.

“In its place,” Carter wrote, “the state should implement a broad array of supports for neighborhood schools in local school districts, where students can be successful academically and socially, graduate, and even be prepared for postsecondary education or employment.”

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