Students in Georgia's special education program are illegally segregated from the rest of the student body, kept in run-down classrooms and denied the same educational and extracurricular opportunities, according to a shocking new report from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Some school facilities originally built to segregate black students from white students are now being used to separate disabled students from the rest of the school population, the report found. In some schools, disabled students aren't even allowed to leave the basement.
In a letter to state officials on Wednesday, the DOJ outlined the findings of its three-year investigation of the state's special ed practices. Georgia's policies violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the letter, which was first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“School is like prison where I am in the weird class,” one student told investigators. Other students said they felt like "outcasts" or "bad kids."
This isn't the first time the state's special ed practices have been called into question. Thirteen-year-old Jonathan King hung himself at his Gainesville school in 2004 after officials locked him in a windowless concrete-block room with no furniture, no food, and no water 19 times over 29 days.
The state program, known as Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS), began in 1970 and grew into a network of so-called “psycho-educational centers.” Some operate in the basements of other schools or in separate wings with separate entrances, while other centers have their own buildings.
These facilities are often in a state of disrepair, lacking gyms, cafeterias, or libraries. Students in the programs get a completely separate education, without the same teachers, electives, and extracurricular opportunities as the rest of the student body. "Students have no opportunities to interact with peers outside the Program or to participate in many of the activities and services offered in the general education environment," the DOJ wrote.
State Department of Education spokesperson Matt Cardoza told Fusion that the office had to review the DOJ letter before commenting.
Georgia's special ed practices used to be common around the U.S.: millions of students with disabilities were kept in separate facilities or completely excluded from public schools as late as the 1970s, according to the disability advocacy group TASH. A landmark 1971 Supreme Court case guaranteed the right to public education for all students, and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act codified rights of disabled people.
Since then, it's become common practice around the U.S. to include disabled students in "regular" classrooms. But not in Georgia, where a “deep, persistent and unrelenting segregation,” has remained for decades, Ruby Moore, the executive director of the disability support group Georgia Advocacy Office, told the Journal-Constitution.
“This has been a long time coming,” she said.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.