Savannah Morning News: Georgia gets a needed kick to improve programs for disabled students (Editorial)
The U.S. Department of Justice has for more than a year been pushing Georgia to do right by its behaviorally disabled students. Many of these children have been subjected to substandard education in crummy classrooms with inadequate therapeutic resources, totally isolated from the general student population, all in violation of federal law. Last year the DOJ wrote a 21-page “Findings Letter” to Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens spelling out a raft of ways the students are getting short-changed discovered during an investigation.
Separate and unequal
These students are kept separate from the general student population. Some are given only computer-based instruction instead of a teacher certified in that subject matter. They often have no access to extra-curricular activities. Classrooms are in run-down buildings. And some students shouldn’t even be in the program, the DOJ said.
Since receiving the letter, the state has been working to comply, but hasn’t gone far enough. The department filed suit in federal court in Atlanta against the state of Georgia this week claiming the state still “discriminates against thousands of public school students with behavior-related disabilities.”
That’s outrageous and must stop.
"We have 5,000 kids or so that are attending segregated schools that are not up to standards in terms of facilities and not up to standards in terms of teaching," says Eric Jacobson, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities in Atlanta. "We’ve let down these kids let down."
The pipeline to prison
Disproportionately, they are African-American. "When they leave school, they'll have no skills to get a job, so they end up in the prison pipeline, he says.
The suit says the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support program, or GNETS, violates the American with Disabilities Act and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bar discrimination against the disabled, young and old. The law says when offering services, state and local governments must provide the disabled residents they serve the least restrictive settings possible, integrate them into the mainstream wherever they can and make whatever “reasonable” modifications that might be necessary to do so.
This complaint alleges that many children in the GNETS program are consigned to dilapidated buildings, or to classrooms that are locked apart from mainstream classrooms, with substantially fewer opportunities of participating in extracurricular activities, U.S. Attorney John Horn in Atlanta said in a press release Tuesday, the day the suit was filed by the department’s civil rights division in Washington.
“The law mandates that all children, including those with behavior-related disabilities, must have equal opportunities for education,” Mr. Horn said.
In Savannah, GNETS students attend classes in trailers next to mainstream schools or at the Coastal Georgia Comprehensive Academy on Cynthia Street. The center serves about 200 children from Savannah, Chatham and Effingham counties in kindergarten through 12th grade. Transitioning them into the mainstream is one of its goals, so some students spend half the school day there and half in regular schools, says Principal Steve Derr.
A new wing at Jenkins High School
If voters approve extending a special sales tax for educational purposes, the academy will be able to build a wing attached to Jenkins High School, says Mr. Derr, citing substantial support from the local school districts. That’s encouraging to hear.
Around the state, most of the 4,600 students enrolled through GNETS see only other disabled students throughout the day, the Justice Department says. Even when they share a building with their abled peers, they don’t share the lunchroom, although interaction with others helps the disabled learn appropriate behavior.
GNETS students are moderately to severely autistic or have other kinds of severe behavioral problems. Integrating these children into the general student population without slowing the progress of other children is, of course, far easier said than done. And the fact that GNETS teaches children with a variety of problems makes it even tougher, more staff-intensive and more expensive. And then there is the shortage of special education teachers.
But it can be done, as Mr. Horn said certain Georgia programs have proven. And it must be done. It’s the law, as well as the right and humane thing to do.
A bad attitude
Since Georgia was put on warning, lawyers for the state have been writing regular reports to the DOJ detailing progress. Educational officials have been analyzing each GNETS student’s educational and therapeutic needs, inspecting schools and classrooms, hiring a new administrator over GNETS and bringing in more training. “We are disappointed in the DOJ’s decision to sue, especially given the tremendous efforts we've put into enhancing the educational experience for the small percentage of children who receive education services from GNETS programs,” state school Superintendent Richard Woods said in a statement.
It's hard not to read bad attitude into his statement, which seems to begrudge having to work so hard for such a “small percentage of children.”
It shouldn’t have taken a giant kick from Washington for Georgia to do right by these students. The hope is that the lawsuit will speed the progress along so that Georgia's most troubled children will have a solid chance at a full, productive life.
The original article appeared in the Savannah Morning News on August 25, 2016.