WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday sued the state of Georgia for allegedly segregating and mistreating thousands of public school students with behavior-related disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The department contends that 4,600 students in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support program were improperly segregated from their general-education classmates despite the ADA requiring that they be accommodated in the most integrated setting appropriate to assure meaningful interaction with students without disabilities.

The GNETS program is supposed to provide “comprehensive educational and therapeutic support services” for students who might otherwise require residential or other more restrictive placements because of their emotional or behavioral disorder, the program website says.

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But segregating students with behavioral disabilities can stigmatize them and keep them from learning to interact with others. This can deprive them of developing the social and coping skills that help them function in mainstream society.

“Georgia has relegated thousands of students with behavior-related disabilities to separate, segregated and unequal settings, and placed other students at serious risk of entering such settings (by) failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said a statement by Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, is the Justice Department’s first-ever lawsuit against a state-run school system for segregating students with disabilities.

It comes after the state failed to make satisfactory corrective actions after being notified of problems in the GNETS program in a July 2015 letter sent to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens.

Following a two-year investigation based on complaints from parents and students, the Justice Department found that students in the program spent whole days, including lunch periods, in isolation with other students with disabilities.

More than two-thirds of GNETS students attend classes in regional centers that are often far from their homes. Others attend classes in separate, isolated areas of general school buildings.

“The negative effects of inappropriate segregation faced by students in the GNETS Program are readily apparent,” the 2015 letter said. “One student in the GNETS Program stated, ‘school is like prison where I am in the weird class.'”

Attorneys for the state have been negotiating with the Department of Justice about fixing problems in the program and in July submitted a letter outlining the progress they had made. But a department spokesman said those discussions and efforts by the state have not produced satisfactory results.

While the federal government would prefer to reach an agreement on program fixes, the agency said it is prepared to go to trial and seek a federal court order for Georgia public schools to provide appropriate mental health services.

“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,” said a statement from U.S. Attorney John A. Horn of the Northern District of Georgia.

Jen Ryan, spokeswoman for Deal, said only that the 2015 letter was given to the Department of Education as required by law.

Requests for comment from the offices of Olens and Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods went unanswered.

© 2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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