ATLANTA — For at least six months, state and federal officials swapped proposals and counterproposals on what to do about Georgia’s unique system of so-called psychoeducational schools.

But neither side budged on the key issue: whether Georgia could continue segregating children with behavioral and emotional disabilities.

Now the U.S. Department of Justice says it will file a lawsuit claiming the state violates the civil rights of students assigned to the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS.

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With negotiations stalled, “we have determined that we must pursue the United States’ claims in federal court to vindicate the rights of thousands of affected students with behavior-related disabilities across Georgia,” Vanita Gupta, who heads the department’s civil rights division, wrote in a letter this month to Gov. Nathan Deal and other state officials.

The Justice Department has accused Georgia of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires students with disabilities to be educated as often as possible with children who are typically developing. The agency will seek nothing short of closing the 24 GNETS programs, according to lawyers familiar with the case.

“I don’t see a way where a segregated program can exist in a post-ADA world,” said Craig Goodmark, an Atlanta lawyer who represents students with disabilities.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. Deal’s spokeswoman said she wasn’t aware of the letter.

The Justice Department notified state officials in July 2015 that an investigation found illegal segregation in GNETS, the only statewide network of its kind. The department described schools where students with disabilities had no contact with typically-developing children. Often, students with disabilities were confined in decrepit buildings that lacked libraries, gyms, science labs and other commonplace features. Some of the buildings housed black students during the Jim Crow era.

In May, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Georgia schools assign a vastly disproportionate number of African-American students to GNETS programs. The newspaper also examined psychological experimentation by a GNETS psychologist, as well as the extensive use of physical restraint to control children’s behavior. Since 2014, restraints were used nearly 10,000 times — five times more than at the state’s other 2,300 public schools combined.

Gupta’s letter said state and federal lawyers negotiated for eight months, meeting in person four times and by telephone on numerous occasions.

The state’s legal bills, obtained by the Journal-Constitution, show that both sides drafted several proposed agreements to settle the case without a lawsuit. A draft memorandum of understanding circulated among the lawyers in April, and the state was preparing a new proposal as late as May.

The bills indicate the lawyers considered at least six proposed agreements.

“You’d hope they would have agreed on some points,” said Leslie Lipson, a lawyer with the Georgia Advocacy Office who has handled numerous GNETS cases. “There is not a single agreement that came to fruition.”

As negotiations wound down, the state focused on the poor physical condition of GNETS buildings. Last month, citing safety and health concerns, state officials ordered nine facilities immediately shut down. Lawyers for the state said the move reflected a commitment to “enhance the educational experience” of GNETS students.

But the students were merely transferred to other buildings — still segregated by disability.

“These efforts suggest the state intends to continue to fund, operate and administer a separate, segregated and unequal statewide service system,” Gupta wrote in her letter.

She added: “We are not convinced that those efforts, provided in segregated settings, are designed to achieve equality of educational opportunity.”

States rarely prevail in civil rights cases brought by the Justice Department, lawyers said; many such investigations end with negotiated settlements. Typically, courts appoint a monitor to oversee a state’s efforts to correct violations. Such a monitor has tracked Georgia’s mental health system since 2010.

Already, Georgia has paid its lawyers — from Atlanta-based Robbins Ross Alloy Belinfante Littlefield — about $165,000, state records show.

With the lawsuit coming, Goodmark said, “it’s going to be a lot more.”

© 2016 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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