ATLANTA — At a school in Cordele, students with behavioral disorders must use segregated restrooms. They have separate lunch periods. They have to enter through a special door and, unlike their peers without disabilities, pass through a metal detector.

In Rome, students in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support program aren’t allowed to engage with other students — or even leave the basement.

“School,” one student said, “is like prison where I am in the weird class.”

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Through such programs, Georgia illegally segregates thousands of students with behavioral or psychiatric disorders, often in schools that are dirty, in poor repair and, in some cases, served as blacks-only facilities before court-ordered integration, the U.S. Justice Department charged this week.

The way Georgia treats the 5,000 students in its GNETS program — once officially referred to as “psycho-ed” schools — violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Justice Department said in a letter to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens.

The 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.

State officials did not immediately respond to the Justice Department. The state Education Department, which oversees the GNETS program, will study the letter before commenting, spokesman Matt Cardoza said.

Advocates for people with disabilities welcomed the federal intervention.

The GNETS program has perpetrated “deep, persistent and unrelenting segregation, literally for decades,” said Ruby Moore, executive director of the Georgia Advocacy Office, a state-funded agency that monitors treatment of people with disabilities and mental illness.

“This has been a long time coming,” Moore said.

Georgia has assigned students to separate programs for behavioral issues since 1970. It operates facilities in 24 regions across the state, most of them in buildings or parts of schools physically removed from its general-education classrooms.

The state spends about $70 million a year on the programs. In 2009, state auditors said the same students could be educated in regular schools for about $42 million a year.

The Justice Department opened its investigation almost three years ago following a complaint from a parent. The department said state officials cooperated throughout the inquiry.

The GNETS schools came under scrutiny in 2009 after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the case of Jonathan King, a 13-year-old from Hall County who was assigned to the Alpine GNETS school in Gainesville. School personnel placed the boy in seclusion — a windowless room with no furniture, no food and no water, behind a locked metal door — 19 times over 29 days in the fall of 2004. The average length of seclusion was 94 minutes.

On Nov. 15, 2004, teachers placed Jonathan in what they called the “timeout room,” and, although he had twice threatened suicide, allowed him to keep a rope he was using as a belt. He used the rope to hang himself.

The Justice Department’s letter to Deal and Olens contained no mention of seclusion, restraint or other questionable behavior-control tactics. But it said the GNETS schools “severely restrict interactions between students with disabilities and their peers in general education.”

“Rather than ensuring that students with behavior-related disabilities have access to necessary therapeutic and educational supports in integrated settings, the state administers the GNETS program in a manner that undermines the availability of these services in more integrated settings,” the department said.

Most GNETS facilities are old — including those once designated as black-only — and have poor lighting, are badly maintained and lack sufficient air conditioning, the department said. Many have no gymnasiums, cafeterias or playgrounds, much less libraries or science labs.

Students rarely receive instruction in anything beyond core subjects. At some schools, particularly those with grades 9 through 12, most instruction is offered by computer; students have little direct interaction with teachers.

Few of the schools offer electives, such as art or music, and few operate extracurricular programs. At the Woodall GNETS school in Columbus, the Justice Department said no student has ever participated in any extracurricular activity.

The Justice Department’s inquiry into the GNETS program follows similar investigations in recent years into Georgia’s juvenile justice and mental health systems. Both cases led to long-term federal oversight that forced the state to increase spending and change the way it delivers services. The GNETS investigation could lead to a comparable outcome, said Moore of the Georgia Advocacy Office.

“The Department of Justice doesn’t bring frivolous cases,” she said.

© 2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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