Thursday, August 25, 2016
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia alleging it unlawfully discriminates against students with disabilities through its GNETS program. GNETS stands for Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports. The program, which is over forty years old, consists primarily of separate facilities designated for providing education and supports to students with behavioral disabilities. DOJ contends that the program violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits unnecessary segregation on the basis of disability in the public schools. Tuesday’s filing represents the culmination of both years of investigation by DOJ and over a year of negotiations attempting to settle the matter with the state.
DOJ first put Georgia on notice of the potential for such a suit in July 2015, when it sent a Letter of Findings to Governor Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens. In that letter, DOJ alleged that the GNETS program created incentives for the placement of students with behavioral disabilities in segregated facilities and that those facilities provide opportunities and services that are not equal to those provided in regular education facilities. DOJ found that approximately two-thirds of students in the GNETS program are educated in separate facilities even though the students would benefit from inclusion in the general education environment. It also found that students in these facilities do not have access to art, music, physical education or other non-core classes, unlike students in non-GNETS programs. In addition, DOJ found many stand-alone GNETS program buildings lacked playgrounds, cafeterias, and central or sufficient air conditioning. Some of the stand-alone GNETS programs are housed in the buildings used to educate black students during Jim Crow era segregation.
In response Georgia closed some GNETS facilities and offered to improve others and review each GNETS student’s individualized education plan, which is the special education plan required for every student receiving special education services. However, as DOJ pointed out in its letter of intent to sue earlier this month, the state and school districts already have a legal obligation to review students’ IEPs. DOJ further concluded that improving segregated facilities demonstrates the state’s apparent unwillingness to dismantle a program of segregation.
Time of course will tell whether DOJ can succeed in largely dismantling the GNETS program. Even if the effort does succeed, the victory will be truly won only if students who would have otherwise found themselves in a segregated GNETS program are not simply segregated into separate classrooms within non-GNETS schools. Georgia’s general and special education funding scheme, as the DOJ suit suggests, incentivizes segregation. Being educated in buildings with playgrounds and adequate air conditioning is a vast improvement over being educated in settings without those basic services, but until the system no longer incentivizes segregation, the risk that students with disabilities will be segregated will remain.