On Wednesday, July 15, the United States Department of Justice issued a letter to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens finding that the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, the GNETS program, violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act by unlawfully segregating students in school based on their disabilities. The Georgia Department of Audits wrote a scathing report about the GNETS program in 2010, and DOJ opened the investigation in 2011 in response to a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The GNETS program is a state-funded system of centers designed to provide behavioral and therapeutic support to students with behavior-related disabilities. Most GNETS programs operate in separate buildings, so students in the program are completely segregated from students without disabilities. DOJ found the GNETS programs provide unequal services to students, including that the facilities are not as well-maintained – in some cases far less well-maintained – as regular education settings, and that the curriculum and instruction is inferior. Some instruction is online. In addition, DOJ found that the state does not train regular education teachers in techniques for managing students with behavioral disabilities so that they can be taught in the regular education environment. DOJ also found that the state of Georgia actually incentivizes participation in the GNETS program by only providing support and therapeutic services to students with behavioral disabilities in the GNETS program and not in regular education settings. DOJ concluded that these services, which include “individualized behavior intervention plans, crisis plans, mentoring, and other individualized supports,” could be provided in the regular education.
As a result, DOJ recommends that the state immediately take remedial measures. Included among the steps that DOJ indicated the state must take is ensuring that students with disabilities are educated in the most integrated setting. To do this, the state needs to comprehensively evaluate each student in the GNETS program to determine if they can be educated in a regular education setting with supports and services. The state also needs to train teachers in regular education settings so they have the tools needed to work with students with behavioral disabilities. If Georgia does not take these and other steps identified by DOJ, they face a lawsuit by DOJ.
These findings probably come as no surprise to anyone with experience dealing with Georgia’s system of special education. Unfortunately, just as DOJ found, teachers in regular education settings are not trained to deal with students with behavioral problems, and parents find themselves fighting, often unsuccessfully, to get their children the services they need to keep them in the regular education setting. The threat of a lawsuit by DOJ serves as powerful incentive for the state to remedy these problems. The interest and well-being of the children with disabilities should too.
Emily Suski is an assistant clinical professor at Georgia State University College of Law teaching family law and in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic, part of the Health Law Partnership, a medical-legal partnership among law school, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.She has extensive experience advocating for children and adolescents with disabilities and has trained hundreds of medical professionals, lawyers, and others on education and disability law.