ATLANTA — A federal lawsuit alleging that Georgia discriminates against students with disabilities is on hold indefinitely.

U.S. District Judge Eleanor L. Ross issued a stay earlier this month in the case, which seeks to abolish the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Services. The network, known as GNETS, serves thousands of children with emotional and behavioral disorders in psychoeducational facilities across the state. But the lawsuit, filed last year by the U.S. Department of Justice, says the state illegally segregates GNETS students from children who have no disabilities.

Ross delayed all action until the federal appeals court in Atlanta decides a case from Florida, in which a judge ruled the Justice Department had no authority to file lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The GNETS suit also alleges ADA violations — a claim vehemently denied by state officials.

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In Florida, the department charged that state officials had illegally institutionalized 200 children with disabilities in nursing homes. But Judge William J. Zloch of the U.S. District Court for South Florida ruled that only individuals, not the federal government, can sue under the ADA.

“This holding runs contrary to the numerous other cases across the country finding that the department does have standing,” Ross wrote in an Aug. 11 order. She noted that a federal judge in Texas recently disregarded the Florida case while ruling in favor of the Justice Department.

But the 11th Circuit’s decision, Ross said, is likely to have a “substantial or controlling effect” on the GNETS suit.

The Justice Department just filed the appeal on Aug. 8, and no proceedings have yet been scheduled. No matter how the court rules, the case could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, creating further delays.

In the meantime, students continue to attend GNETS facilities — many of which, the Justice Department says, are old, dilapidated and lacking such basics as libraries, science labs, gyms and cafeterias.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year that Georgia schools send a disproportionate number of black students to GNETS — particularly black boys.

GNETS came under scrutiny in 2009 after the AJC reported on Jonathan King, a 13-year-old from Hall County. Teachers and administrators at the Alpine GNETS program, then in Gainesville, placed Jonathan in seclusion 19 times over 29 days in the fall of 2004. On average, he spent 94 minutes in what teachers called a “time-out room.” In reality, it was a windowless cell behind a locked metal door.

Jonathan’s final trip to seclusion occurred Nov. 15, 2004. Twice, Jonathan had threatened suicide. Yet, teachers let him keep the rope he was wearing as a belt. He used that rope to hang himself.

© 2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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