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In Legal Battle over Georgia Disability School System, It’s the Feds vs. the South Again

August 23, 2016

By Mendy Hecht, Hamaspik Gazette

Guess some things don’t change.  Or at least not that fast.

It’s a half-century after the civil-rights era that ushered in racial integration and 60 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education verdict that kicked off national public school desegregation.

It’s also 150 years since the Civil War, which not only pitted North vs. South over human rights but also over state autonomy vs. federal authority.

But modern-day Georgia, once a bastion of independent Southern spirit, is currently fighting another battle with those far-off feds in Washington—this time over what the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) asserts is nothing less than flat-out disability discrimination.

The case revolves around the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS), the state’s unique system of so-called psychoeducational schools.

The separate system, which provides specialized schools exclusively for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities, is the only public-school system of its kind in the country.

Because its students largely have no contact with typical students and are also overwhelmingly black, the GNETS system raises the specter of past discrimination.  Enter the DOJ’s civil rights division.

Following an investigation, the DOJ notified Georgia educational officials in July 2015 that illegal segregation had been found in GNETS. That same investigation also found substandard facilities without libraries, gyms, science labs and other commonplace features.

The past eight months have seen state and federal lawyers communicating and negotiating over various proposals and counterproposals, but neither side budging on its key position.

Georgia said it has the right to run its school systems as it sees fit.  The feds said no.  And now, the DOJ is filing a lawsuit claiming that Georgia is violating the civil rights of GNETS students.

“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 DOJ civil rights division head Vanita Gupta to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal in August.

The lawsuit accuses Georgia of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which—among many other things—requires students with disabilities to be educated as often as possible in as typically-integrated a school setting as possible.

According to attorneys familiar with the case, the DOJ will seek nothing short of closing the 24 GNETS program.