Often times when we think segregation in the school system, we tend to draw on our nation’s history of racial unrest. When it comes to the school system and children with disabilities however, the issue of segregation is a topic for today. On August 23, 2016 the United States Justice Department announced that it had filed a lawsuit with the State of Georgia. The Justice Department claims that the treatment and segregation of the students enrolled in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS) program violates the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, alleges that Georgia’s administration of its mental health and therapeutic educational services for students with behavior-related disabilities unnecessarily segregates students with disabilities in GNETS when they could appropriately be served with their peers in general education settings.
Community Integration Vs Segregation
Community Integration has been the primary focus for the Center for Medicaid Services (CMS) over the past several years. With current mandates regarding community Integration, most gravitate toward adults living in congregate settings and/or working in ‘workshop’ settings. However, the ADA community integration mandate and the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v L.C. requires states to make services available to children with disabilities, even those with behavioral concerns, in the most integrated setting. The lawsuit goes on to contend that roughly 4,600 students enrolled in the GNETS 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.
This case, specifically segregation of students with disabilities, is the first ever lawsuit against a state run school system made by the Justice Department. For at least six months prior to filing the lawsuit, there had been back and forth between the State of Georgia and the Justice Department that did not produce a remedy. Unfortunately this follows a two year long period of investigation from complaints that had been filed on behalf of students and parents. Some of the complaints included that students were spending whole days in seclusion from other students. One student stated:
U.S. Attorney John A. Horn of the Northern District of Georgia states
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… The law mandates that all children, including those with behavior-related disabilities, must have equal opportunities for education, and several existing programs within our Georgia schools show that with appropriate support and services, these students can enjoy far greater integration with their peers.
The State schools Superintendent Richard Woods obviously disagrees with the Justice Department and states that he is “disappointed” in their findings. The statement from his office goes on to say that the GNETS program is a critical resource for students with disabilities.
The concept of segregation within schools tends to go unrecognized when it comes to students with developmental disabilities. Parents get swayed by the school system into thinking this is the only means available for their child and parents of typical children want their children ‘protected’ from students who may have severe behaviors in the classroom. In the State of Ohio, Disability Rights Ohio, continues it’s efforts to surface these types of issues locally. There may be no clear cut answer at this point, however the Justice Department is in line for making precedent with the State of Georgia. We shall see in the weeks to come how this unfolds and makes the rights of children with disabilities a priority.