The numbers speak for themselves.
As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this weekend, Georgia sends a vastly disproportionate number of black children to its “psychoeducational” schools. African-Americans make up 54 percent of the enrollment in these programs for children with behavioral and emotional disorders – but just 37 percent of the statewide public school enrollment.
The reasons behind this disparity, however, are not quite that obvious.
The Georgia Department of Education, various school districts, and individual teachers all say race plays no role in assigning students to the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS. Yet they proffer no other explanation.
The process by which a child is assigned to a GNETS program may contain some clues.
Under federal law, schools must create an individualized educational program – commonly called an IEP – for students deemed eligible for special education services. When a school wants to send a child to a GNETS program, the committee overseeing his or her IEP must concur.
The IEP committee usually includes a child’s teacher, maybe a school administrator or two, and sometimes a school psychologist. Parents are required to be included on the panel, but if they disagree with the school representatives, they clearly are outnumbered.
Therein lies one explanation for the demographics of GNETS, according to education advocates, lawyers and others familiar with the process.
Many parents cannot afford to hire a consultant or a lawyer to represent their child before the IEP committee. Or, even if they can, they may not know they have a right to do so. And, consultants say, schools don’t go out of their way to tell them.
“That’s what they count on,” said Carol Sadler, a consultant who represents families in the IEP process. “It’s very sad.”
Another consultant, Kristina Duppan, said: “There is no way an untrained person can do this.”
Having representation doesn’t always make a difference, of course. Many well-resourced families spend years – and lot of money – fighting a GNETS placement in court.
No other state operates a network of psychoeducational schools like GNETS. The U.S. Department of Justice alleged last year that, by segregating children with disabilities in GNETS programs, the state is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Duppan put the issue bluntly:
Imagine, she said, segregating gay kids in their own school.
“What would the outrage be?” she said.