The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia for discriminating against students with disabilities, arguing the state is improperly segregating them from non-disabled students.
The department says the state is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires disabled students to be educated in the most integrated setting possible.
The system of schools in question, called the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, serves about 4,600 students with disabilities in the state. More than two-thirds of those students attend schools that only educate students with disabilities and that are located far from their communities. Even the students who do go to school with non-disabled students are still assigned to classrooms that are isolated from the rest of the school, the department found.
“This complaint alleges that many children in the GNETS Program are consigned to dilapidated buildings that were formerly used for black children during segregation, or to classrooms that are locked apart from mainstream classrooms, with substantially fewer opportunities of participating in extracurricular activities like music, art and sports,” U.S. Attorney John A. Horn of the Northern District of Georgia stated in the department’s announcement.
The department first brought the issue to the state’s attention in July of last year — describing school conditions where disabled students did not have any interaction with non-disabled students, and arguing their schools were of a lower quality and lacked libraries, gyms, and other spaces non-disabled students had access to, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“… many children in the GNETS Program are consigned to dilapidated buildings that were formerly used for black children during segregation…”
“Our investigation found that a GNETS Classroom in the Northwest Georgia GNETS Program is located in the basement of a general education school with its own separate entrance. The students in this GNETS Classroom reportedly never leave the basement or interact with any other students during the school day,” read the department’s findings letter last year. “There is a large sign hanging at the front of this GNETS Classroom that says ‘DETENTION,’ because the Classroom is also used for detention outside regular school hours.”
After those findings, the state and the department entered into negotiations and drafted several proposals. Last month, Georgia shut down several buildings that housed GNETS students, but those students were still shuttled to schools where they were segregated by disability.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation into the schools, which was published in the spring of this year, found that schools were also segregated by race and that the use of physical restraints was common.
In the 1990s, schools begun to think more about “inclusion” and ensuring that classrooms didn’t simply ask students with disabilities to adapt to integrated classrooms, instead suggesting that teachers adapt to teaching all kinds of learners. But as The Atlantic noted, schools have begun to move toward encouraging disabled students to embrace workforce academies, and the research is mixed on the long-term economic benefits. Advocates for students with disabilities are also worried about students being pigeonholed too early and thus prevented from pursuing less “practical” career paths. Black students are also disproportionately represented in special education programs, which is also worrisome, given that many of those students could be mislabeled and are thus receiving the wrong services.