I worked as a substitute teacher in a Newton, Massachusetts middle school a few months ago.
I taught a wide range of kids, including some with behavior-related disabilities. A few of these children needed in-class aides and extra academic support, but they met their challenges head-on and benefited from learning alongside their peers.
If they’d grown up in another state, they might have been taken out of the classroom and put in a separate facility — away from their close friends and isolated from learning opportunities. Call it a modern version of the old “separate but equal” standard.
Twenty-five years ago, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, to end this kind of discrimination. The ADA explicitly requires schools to integrate students with disabilities and to provide classroom aides and other support when necessary.
Yet some states are still leaving children in the lurch, and it’s costing them access to a quality education. Georgia is a prime offender.
Georgia’s program for students with disabilities — the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS) — intentionally segregates students from their able-bodied peers, violating the ADA.
This program specifically targets students with “behavior-related” disabilities. That can mean anything from autism to obsessive-compulsive disorder to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These students are removed to separate facilities and blocked off from their peers by walls, locks, or fences.
That prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to write a letter to Georgia officials expressing concern about the state’s “systemic unnecessary reliance on the segregated GNETS Program.” The department observed that “the vast majority of students” trapped in the program could function just fine in regular classrooms if they got the proper support services.
Worse still, federal authorities determined that Georgia’s services for disabled students aren’t just separate. They’re also “unequal to those provided to students throughout the State who aren’t in the GNETS Program.”
The federal government has ordered Georgia to make its program for students with disabilities comply with the ADA, but the state hasn’t taken any action yet. It may take a lawsuit to force the issue, which could affect not only the way Georgia handles students with disabilities, but how other states treat them as well.
Two-thirds of students with severe disabilities don’t graduate from high school or other secondary education institutions. And those facing behavioral challenges are much more likely to be suspended or expelled. Programs like Georgia’s make the problem even more difficult, denigrating the very children they’re supposed to serve.
One student reportedly told investigators, “School is like prison where I am in the weird class.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. I saw it for myself even before I had the privilege of teaching.
I graduated from college alongside students with autism, bone marrow cancer, fibromyalgia, or severe anxiety disorders. Friends who graduated from other schools have cerebral palsy, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, multiple sclerosis, or congenital heart disease.
Some went to class with wheelchairs, canes, and catheters. Others have invisible disabilities. And they still got a diploma.
The odds shouldn’t be set against students with disabilities. Education is a right, and all students deserve the best chance to learn everything they can.