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After SPLC complaint, DOJ finds Georgia program violates disabilities act

Four years after the SPLC filed a civil rights complaint, the U.S. Department of Justice has found that Georgia discriminates against students with disabilities by segregating them from other students.

It’s difficult for students with behavioral disabilities in Georgia to not feel singled out.

The state often segregates them from other students, placing them in dirty, run-down schools – including some that black students attended during the Jim Crow era. These schools frequently lack gymnasiums, labs and playgrounds. Sometimes the classes aren’t even taught by a teacher. Instead, students may spend their day taking computer-based courses.

Even when these students attend regular schools, they may be relegated to a wing of the school with a separate entrance – preventing them from interacting with other children. One school even had a metal detector in the entrance for the students with disabilities, but not the entrance for other students.

“School is like a prison where I am in the weird class,” one student told federal investigators. Another described feeling like an “outcast.” A parent was even more direct: “It’s a warehouse for kids the school system doesn’t want or know how to deal with.”

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reported these findings earlier this month after investigating a discrimination complaint filed by the SPLC in 2011. The DOJ found that the state’s program for students with disabilities, the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS), was unnecessarily segregating these students – a violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law 25 years ago this month.

The DOJ found that “nearly all” of the 5,000 students in the GNETS program could be integrated with students without disabilities. In a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal and the state attorney general, the DOJ urges the state to develop a plan to address the violations, warning that a lawsuit is possible if the state continues to break the law.

The SPLC has filed numerous civil rights complaints and lawsuits under the ADA to help students with disabilities in the Deep South obtain the services required under the law. In New Orleans, for example, the SPLC last year reached a landmark agreement to settle a suit alleging that children with disabilities were frequently left behind by the city’s system of charter schools – discouraged from attending many schools, subjected to disciplinary removals without respect for their rights, and denied important services.

‘Too many children are languishing’
The DOJ’s action could be felt beyond Georgia. By finding that an entire state program violates the ADA – a remarkably broad use of the act – other states may apply new, and potentially stricter, scrutiny to their programs for students with disabilities.

 “We’re glad that the Department of Justice has taken action to ensure that these students have equal access to a quality education and hope that the state takes the findings seriously,” said Rhonda Brownstein, SPLC legal director. “Too many children are languishing under this discriminatory program.”

School funding is at the root of much of the segregation. When the SPLC filed its complaint four years ago, it described how the state’s funding scheme encourages districts to needlessly segregate students with disabilities to receive more money.

The DOJ found that the state was “unnecessarily relying on, and creating incentives for school districts to choose, a segregated GNETS program to provide behavioral and mental health services.”

The DOJ’s letter noted that Georgia spends almost $70 million annually to serve the nearly 5,000 students in this program. It cited a state audit that found in 2009 the state could have spent a minimum of $42 million to serve these students in regular schools rather than segregating them, which cost $58 million at that time.

Because they were segregated, the DOJ found, students were denied “some of the most basic elements of a typical childhood school experience.” Its letter details how these students often long for simple school experiences: One student wanted a locker like “normal” high school students.  Another desperately wanted to have her picture included in a yearbook – just like her friends who are not in the program.

“We hope that what has happened in Georgia will spur other states to take steps to ensure they’re complying with disabilities law,” Brownstein said. “These students shouldn’t be shunned and stigmatized by their school district.”