Civil Rights Abuses Persist in Georgia’s State-Run Special Education Schools

In the October 1, 2018, New Yorker, Rachel Aviv presents the tragic story of a family whose child is trapped and isolated in a racially segregated and horrifically dysfunctional special education system operated since 1970 by the state of Georgia as a network of special schools for disabled children: the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support or GNETS.

Aviv presents GNETS’ role over several years in the life of Seth Murrell, beginning when Seth, a four-year old who is isolated, pretty much warehoused at school, and sometimes abused as a pre-schooler trying to adjust to school. We also learn of the struggles of his family, desperate to find quality services for Seth, who move several times trying to find a better school for a child eventually diagnosed with autism. The parents discover that once Seth has been referred to GNETS, no other Georgia school will enroll him. He will now be assigned to another GNETS school in any Georgia community where they move.

Family members worry about Seth and try to check up on him at school from time to time, including an aunt—a certified school teacher in Atlanta—who is familiar with how children are supposed to be served.  During drop-in visits to the GNETS schools where Seth is enrolled, they discover him alone in a classroom without a teacher; assigned to an isolation chair facing the wall for 30 minutes; locked in an isolation room; and lying on the floor, handcuffed to a chair.  On several occasions he arrives home from school showing physical marks of corporal punishment. Teachers—overwhelmed, desperate, and discouraged—report to Aviv that they lack certification and training. Some, including long-term substitutes, lack special education training; others lack any training or experience working with children who are autistic.

Aviv describes an attorney who began to investigate a complaint from another family: “Leslie Lipson, a lawyer at the Georgia Advocacy Office, a state-funded agency that represents people with disabilities, said that she first learned of the GNETS system in 2001, when a mother called to report that her son was put in a seclusion room nearly every day.  ‘It’s all little black boys at this school,’ the mother told her… Lipson studied the history of the schools, some of which were established in buildings that had housed schools for black children during the Jim Crow era.  At a time when there was an outcry against court-ordered integration, GNETS became a mechanism for resegregating schools.  ‘It became a way to filter out black boys, who at younger and younger ages are perceived to have behavioral disabilities,’ she said.”

This is, of course, all illegal under federal education law, passed in many instances to protect the civil rights of children after the end of Jim Crow segregation, and under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Aviv explains: “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities learn in the ‘least restrictive environment,’ a loose term that may mean different things depending on the race or the class of the student. Nirmala Erevelles, a professor of disability studies at the University of Alabama, told me that, ‘in general, when it comes to people of color—particularly poor people of color—we choose the most restrictive possibility’…. According to Beth Ferri, a disability scholar at Syracuse University, IDEA provided a kind of loophole to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Now racial segregation continued ‘under the guise of disability,’… ‘You don’t need to talk about any race anymore. You can just say that the kid is a slow learner, or defiant, or disrespectful.'”

Aviv reports: “Data obtained through records requests reveal that the percentage of students in the GNETS program who are black boys is double that of the public schools in the state. Most of the students in GNETS are classified as having an ’emotional and behavioral disorder,’ a vague label that does not correspond to any particular medical diagnosis.”

Aviv’s subject is not merely about Georgia, however. As a federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is supposed to protect students served by the program in schools across the United States. Here is where the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos’s Education Department are implicated. To address the very problem Aviv identifies, in 2016, the Obama administration’s Department of Education established a “significant disproportionality rule,” to stop the disproportionate assignment of African American children—and particularly African American boys—to special education.  Aviv explains: “In 2016, under President Barack Obama, the Department of Education instituted the ‘significant disproportionality rule,’ which required states to more vigilantly report when students of color are disciplined and placed in special-education classes at higher rates than their peers.  Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, and although black students make up only nineteen percent of students with disabilities, they make up thirty-six percent of those who are mechanically restrained—handcuffed, strapped to a chair, tied down.”

The Obama era “significant disproportionality rule” was scheduled to go into effect in the summer of 2017, but Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education has delayed implementation of the law for two years, with the intention of modifying or rescinding it. Key staff who helped design the rule during the Obama era have told Aviv of their disgust: “Michael Yudin, the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in Obama’s Department of Education, told me that he was appalled by the decision. ‘It flies in the face of the data, reams and reams of data, showing that the problem is massive.'”

There was, under President Obama, another attempt to curtail the abuses at the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support.  Obama’s Department of Justice had filed a civil rights lawsuit against Georgia to “vindicate the rights of the thousands of students unnecessarily segregated in the GNETS Program.” Negotiations were underway in the summer of 2016, but the state of Georgia, gambling that a president less committed to civil rights would be elected, delayed settling the case.  Since then, Trump’s Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions has not made resolving this case a priority.

This brief summary cannot capture the details and nuances of this story. Please read Rachel Aviv’s Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special-Educaton System.

Educators Convicted in Atlanta Test Cheating Scandal: Part II

On Friday this blog examined the Atlanta test-cheating scandal and the convictions last Wednesday in an Atlanta courtroom of eleven educators under a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law designed to try those engaged in racketeering and criminal conspiracy.  It is easy for us to jump to judgement and assign blame in cases that appear sensational, but when their superiors demanded that they cheat, many of those involved struggled with the values that caused them to become teachers, with their professional commitment to the subjects they were expected to teach, and with their commitment to the children in their schools.  And their dilemmas were not ethically clear cut.

This blog declared last Friday: “As a society we haven’t spoken forcefully enough to stop the process when we’ve been told that educators can, in a year or two, magically turn around the school achievement of all children in a class or a grade level or even a whole school or school district. Atlanta’s school superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall promised she could do that and then set out to prove it.  ‘Turnaround’ is the code word for what we have been demanding of public schools for over a decade now…  And by a federal law in 2002 we demanded that all schools raise all students’ test scores to the level of proficiency by 2014.  This is, of course, a matter of ‘just pretend’…  Statistically there are always means and medians and modes; people range in their abilities and each one has special talents and weaknesses. But school policy in America has been blindly denying reality.”

Today’s post is a follow up on the subject of the Atlanta cheating scandal—to recommend two additional articles that examine what happened in the schools in Atlanta from different points of view.  The first is an in-depth profile of Atlanta educators trapped under pressure to change students’ answers on standardized test answer sheets. In  Wrong Answer, that appeared in the New Yorker magazine last summer,  Rachel Aviv explains, “After more than two thousand interviews, the investigators concluded that forty-four schools had cheated and that a ‘culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.’ They wrote that data had been ‘used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish.’ Several teachers had been told that they had a choice: either make targets or be placed on a Performance Development Plan, which was often a precursor to termination.  At one elementary school, during a faculty meeting, a principal forced a teacher whose students had tested poorly to crawl under the table.”  Aviv tells the stories of several teachers and school principals who found themselves caught what felt like an impossible moral dilemma in which they felt pressured to cheat to protect the students in their classes, to protect stability in their school (they and their colleagues risked being fired if scores remained low) and to keep the school itself open.

Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) also examines the ethical dilemma faced by teachers who were expected to meet impossible demands.  In Taking the Fall in Atlanta, a piece published last Friday on EPI’s website, Rothstein examines the impossibly utopian assumptions imposed by the distant policy makers who created No Child Left Behind’s sanctions-based accountability system: “Certainly educators can refuse to cheat, and take the fall for unavoidable failure in other ways: they can see their schools closed, their colleagues fired, their students’ confidence and love of learning destroyed. That would have been the legal thing to do, but not necessarily the ethical thing to do. As one indicted teacher told the judge before the trial, ‘I truly believed that I was helping these children stay in school just one more year,’ something from which they would have benefited far more more than being drilled incessantly on test-taking strategies so they could pass tests legally.”

Rothstein concludes: “Eleven Atlanta educators, convicted and imprisoned, have taken the fall for systematic cheating on standardized tests in American education.  Such cheating is widespread, as is similar corruption in any institution—whether health care, criminal justice, the Veterans Administration, or others—where top policymakers try to manage their institutions with simple quantitative measures that distort the institution’s goals. This corruption is especially inevitable when out-of-touch policymakers set impossible-to-achieve goals and expect that success will nonetheless follow if only underlings are held accountable for measurable results… Holding educators accountable for student test results makes sense if the tests are reasonable reflections of teacher performance.  But if they are not, and if educators are being held accountable for meeting standards that are impossible to achieve, then the only way to meet fanciful goals imposed from above—according to federal law, that all children will make adequate yearly progress towards full proficiency in 2014—is to cheat, using illegal or barely legal devices. It is not surprising that educators do just that.”

Please do read Aviv’s and Rothstein’s fine articles and Friday’s blog post at this site. In a piece published yesterday on the opinion pages of the Atlanta Journal Constitution (a piece behind a paywall and available for subscribers only) Bob Schaeffer of the National Center & Open Testing provides a bit of additional context for what happened in Atlanta: “Nearly four decades ago, acclaimed social scientist Donald Campbell forecast today’s scandals.  He wrote, ‘When test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.'”

Something has gone haywire in our nation’s education policy.  What happened in Atlanta last week should cause us all to stop and pay attention.