The U.S. Department of Justice has decided to sue Georgia over its segregated “psychoeducational” schools for disabled children.
The head of the department’s civil rights division sent a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal and other state officials Monday describing a breakdown in negotiations over the future of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS.
“We have determined that we must pursue the United States’ claims in federal court to vindicate the rights of thousands of affected students with behavior-related disabilities across Georgia,” wrote Vanita Gupton, who heads the civil rights division.
The Justice Department notified state officials in July 2015 that an investigation had found the GNETS program violated federal law by segregating disabled students in schools with no students without disabilities. Many GNETS facilities lacked libraries, gyms and science labs, and some were in decrepit buildings once occupied by black students during the Jim Crow era.
Citing safety and health concerns, state officials recently ordered nine GNETS buildings to shut down immediately. Lawyers for the state said the move reflected a commitment to “enhance the educational experience” of GNETS students.
However, Gupta wrote: “We are not convinced that those efforts, provided in segregated settings, are designed to achieve equality of educational opportunity.”
The state created the GNETS system in the early 1970s, at the end of an era that saw many disabled children institutionalized for life. Advocates for people with disabilities complained that not only were the students segregated from their peers, they often were mistreated. A G
NETS student in Gainesville hanged himself in 2004 in a locked seclusion room that resembled a jail cell.
Earlier this year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Georgia schools assign a vastly disproportionate number of African-American students to GNETS programs. The newspaper also recounted psychological experimentation by a GNETS psychologist, as well as the extensive use of physical restraint to control children’s behavior.
Gupta did not specify when the lawsuit will be filed.