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.