Ten years later, the couple sat across a wooden table from Caleb, now 16, a high-school dropout and, as of September, a survivor of a suicide attempt.
Not only did Caleb never return to his local school, but he learned little throughout his elementary-, middle- and high-school years—which included hundreds of hours struggling through computer lessons in math, science, and social studies.
His paltry education was much like that of dozens of other children in the GNETS system whose experiences this reporter researched. Aspects of Caleb’s time in GNETS were echoed by the families interviewed: a sense that they could do nothing to get their children back into local schools once they were in the system and a hopelessness in the face of violence and chaos in the classrooms. Most, but not all, reported an absence of the sort of therapeutic benefit implied by the program’s name.
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There are children like Caleb and his GNETS classmates all over the country—with diagnoses including ADHD, bipolar disorder, and, increasingly, autism. They are often placed in separate classrooms within public schools and spend large numbers of hours on computers using technology that is not aligned with their specific needs. Georgia has had an entirely separate and separately funded program for children with emotional and behavioral disorders for five decades.
The Georgia program caught the attention of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which launched an investigation that lasted several years, resulting in a 21-page letter of findings in July 2015, and a lawsuit in August 2016.
According to that lawsuit, the GNETS system violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, both by segregating children with disabilities and by denying them access to an equal education.
The state of Georgia filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in October. Students like Caleb continue to languish in GNETS schools while the lawsuit continues its course. The most recent move came on December 9, when the Department of Justice filed a brief opposing the state’s motion to dismiss. Whether the Trump administration will approach the case differently is unclear.
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The GNETS program is spread across Georgia in 24 locations. Since opening in Athens in 1970, the program has admitted tens of thousands of children, with a range of disabilities, under the umbrella of “emotional and behavioral disorders.”
The Justice Department’s case is the first time that the agency has charged a statewide educational system with violating the ADA, Title II, which guarantees people with disabilities full access to the same public services as the general population. “I’m confident that what’s being created [by this lawsuit] is that the ADA applies to all segregation—including education,” said Alison Barkoff, the advocacy director at the Center for Public Representation, a Massachusetts-based public-interest disability law firm.
The case has implications for school systems and children with emotional and behavioral disorders across the nation, experts say, pointing to the notion that children with disabilities, given the right kind of in-classroom supports, are capable of learning in a general-education environment and will benefit emotionally and psychologically from being in class with children without disabilities. What’s more, research has shown that integrating children with disabilities into classrooms, when accompanied by adequate teacher and staff training, yields positive academic and social results.
The federal lawsuit’s first argument—that the system is segregated—is fairly straightforward and easy to demonstrate: GNETS students spend their days in stand-alone, separate buildings or in separate classrooms within public schools, and have little to no contact with the general student population.
But the second argument—that GNETS offers an unequal education—is more complex, as it requires discovering what students and teachers are doing in those separate buildings and classrooms. It appears that little grade-level content is being taught, with much teaching relegated to online courses. What’s more, many school days are derailed by violent outbursts from students whose behaviors are not managed according to useful therapies, often resulting in visits by police and even arrests.
“Because of their disabilities … these kids need potent, individualized instruction, but instead they’re receiving one-size-fits-all—or what I call ‘one-size-fits-none’—computerized instruction and coercive behavior controls, or warehousing,” said Leslie Lipson, a counsel to the Georgia Advocacy Office, a nonprofit organization and part of a coalition that has sought to integrate GNETS students into the public-school system.
In its July 2015 letter of findings, the DOJ offered its own peek into GNETS classrooms:
Students in the GNETS Program generally do not receive grade-level instruction that meets Georgia’s State Standards like their peers in general-education classrooms. Rather, particularly at the high-school level, students in the GNETS Program often receive only computer-based instruction.
About two-thirds of the students in the system’s population are in middle or high school, according to the state education department, so if the DOJ is correct, most GNETS students are being taught largely by computers.
During a six-month period, I gathered information on the experiences of about 100 families with children in the GNETS system, via interviews with the families and by talking to advocates, attorneys, and educators. The experiences of these families generally matched the DOJ findings. Ironically, many families also said that the assistive technologies designed to help students with disabilities are seldom part of a GNETS education
Notably, the few parents who spoke positively of the system did so out of a sense that it was the least disagreeable option for their children. One parent at a public meeting said that a police officer told her that her son “would get better services in jail” than at her local school.
Matt Cardoza, the spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, repeatedly answered queries about the GNETS system by saying that legal counsel had prohibited any substantive conversation, on the record or off. Specific queries were repeatedly answered with claims that the information was unavailable or would take dozens of hours to obtain. And Wyn Hornbuckle, the deputy director of the DOJ’s office of public affairs, did not reply to multiple emails seeking a conversation about the GNETS system.
Experts have concluded that, in Georgia and elsewhere, little or no integration with the general-student population, teachers with no specific content-area certification, ineffective treatment of behaviors caused by disabilities, and poor uses of digital technology all add up to negative and unequal educational outcomes for these children.
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Brent, Jennifer, and Caleb lived with these issues for nearly a decade. What makes their experience noteworthy is that both parents were public-school teachers while Caleb was growing up; Jennifer even had a certification in special education. And still they could do nothing to improve their son’s education as he got shuttled from one GNETS center to another.
Along the way, with Caleb under doctors’ care, the Agnews tried a variety of medications to help him with his psychological problems, together with family and individual therapy. Some of this helped.
On a recent winter evening, the three of them sat in their dining room with its picture window looking down a hill to Lake Lanier, a placid contrast to Caleb’s chaotic childhood. It took the family several hours to unravel how things had gone wrong for their son in school.
The first GNETS center Caleb attended was in the building where E.E. Butler High School, a segregated school in the early 1960s, once stood. Now known as the Alpine Program, it was where 13-year-old Jonathan King, a child diagnosed with ADHD and depression, hanged himself in 2004 after being placed in a windowless “seclusion room.” That tragedy led the state, six years later, to adopt rules prohibiting such practices and limiting the use of physical restraints to control a child’s behavior.
But as Caleb went through elementary school, he recalled, “it became more and more normal to see kids blow up and being restrained—including me.” His mother stood up from the table and demonstrated how teachers would restrain her son. She stood behind her husband, crossed his arms in front of his chest and pushed his head down on the table.