The State of Georgia, its governor and seven other governmental agencies and officials are the defendants in a proposed class action lawsuit filed by two disability watchdog groups that allege the parties should be held responsible for discriminating against thousands of public school students with disabilities by “segregating them in a network of unequal and separate institutions and classrooms” called the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS) program. The 51-page lawsuit, filed by The Georgia Advocacy Office, the state’sfederally mandated disability watchdog agency, and The Arc of the United States, a group that advocates for the rights of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, names the following as defendants:
State of Georgia;
Nathan Deal, in his official capacity as Governor;
Georgia Board of Education;
Georgia Department of Education;
Richard Woods, in his official capacity as State School Superintendent;
Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities;
Judy Fitzgerald, in her official capacity as Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities;
Department of Community Health; and
Frank Berry, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Health.
The complaint explains that GNETS was established more than 40 years ago as a special education program for students ages three to 21 who have behavioral needs as a result of their disabilities. As of 2016, more than 5,200 students statewide, the majority of which are African American, are in GNETS, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit alleges students enrolled in GNETS receive a “low-quality education” as a result of poor instruction and a lack of access to the same extracurricular activities as their non-disabled peers. Very few GNETS students receive regular school diplomas, the lawsuit continues, due to in part to the program’s lack of core courses and inherent structure that segregates students in the program “in separate wings of zoned schools” from non-GNETS students. At the core of the lawsuit are allegations that GNETS staff often makes students’ behavior worse, and that participation in the program does less for students who need special services than if they were placed in a more traditional classroom atmosphere.
“Although advertised as ‘therapeutic,’ GNETS are anything but,” the lawsuit argues. “At GNETS, students do not receive the services they need to improve their behavior. Often, their behavior worsens when placed in GNETS because of the harsh and punitive atmosphere that prevails. Staff routinely use physical restraints and otherwise rely on harsh and ineffective methods of discipline.”
The plaintiffs, who, along with the previously mentioned advocacy organizations, filed the suit on behalf of their minor children, argue against the existence of GNETS and seek for Georgia to revamp its funding of GNETS-provided services and end the alleged segregation of students with behavioral needs from their non-disabled peers. From the lawsuit:
“Tragically, the students placed in GNETS do not need to be there. If they were provided with the services they need, they could remain in their zoned schools and receive a far better education than they are receiving in GNETS.
GNETS’ very existence causes this problem. By maintaining and funding GNETS separate and apart from local school districts, the State has created a system in which a GNETS referral is the most convenient, and, in many school districts, only option for students with disability-related behavioral needs.
The full complaint can be read below.
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