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How I sought answers to what happens in Georgia’s classrooms for children with behavioral disabilities

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How I sought answers to what happens in Georgia’s classrooms for children with behavioral disabilities

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Photo credit: Jesse Pratt Lopez
Caleb Hacker at the campus of one of the several GNETS schools he attended. This school was once used for black students during the era of segregation. (Photo credit: Jesse Pratt Lopez)

I took on a reporting project that depended heavily on being able to find and interview everyday people, or families of children with disabilities across Georgia, as much as officials or experts — and lots of them.

The project concerned an educational system parallel to the state of Georgia’s K-12 public school system, created for students with so-called emotional and behavioral disabilities, a catch-all phrase that includes diagnoses ranging from autism to ADHD. Every year for the last 47 years, thousands of students are taken out of their schools and sent to any of several dozen centers throughout the state, where they are meant to receive an education and therapeutic treatment for behaviors linked to their disabilities.

Called the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports, or GNETS, the system was the subject of a federal Department of Justice investigation, which resulted in a July 2015 letter of findings that alleged that the system violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. This was the first such case involving a separate, statewide system.

After the state made no changes and negotiations between the two sides broke down, the DOJ sued the state of Georgia in August 2016. The lawsuit has implications for the way schools across the nation educate children with disabilities.

As of April 2017, the case is ongoing. GNETS has received state and national media coverage surrounding both the DOJ’s letter of findings and its eventual lawsuit. There were also several in-depth articles a year ago in the Atlanta Journal Constitution: on the system’s racial inequities (the 5,000 or so students then in the system were disproportionately black and male), on controversial behavioral experiments involving a girl with multiple disabilities, and on the ongoing use of physical restraint with students. 

The DOJ’s case centers on two ideas: GNETS violates the ADA because the education it provides is both separate and unequal. Much of the news coverage mentioned above highlighted the first part — including the fact of students being sent to buildings that were used as schools for black children before Brown v. Board of Education, or the abuse and neglect that has happened at some of the centers, or the absence of certain curricular subject areas in the program. A lot of the details in these stories come from the DOJ’s 21-page letter of findings, which relied in part on testimonies gathered from parents during a year-plus investigation. 

But I thought it would be useful for all concerned — parents, advocates, attorneys and the community at large — to focus on the second part. Since what we’re talking about is schools, it seemed important to ask: How is the education provided to these children unequal? What exactly are they learning, and is it different from what they could be learning, particularly if they were integrated into neighborhood schools, with robust educational and behavioral supports?

The end result was a sense of what made this program unequal in its educational offering, often leaving children behind who could be learning academic material — and offering them little to no behavioral therapy.  

As part of tackling this question, I also wanted to understand the role that computers played in teaching children in GNETS. One phrase in the DOJ’s extensive letter piqued my curiosity: “particularly at the high-school level, students in the GNETS program often receive only computer-based instruction.”  

I soon learned that both the federal DOJ and the state Department of Education would be of no help. The federal agency wrote in an email that it could not provide background information of any kind due to the lawsuit and ignored repeated requests to speak on the phone. The state at least answered emails and phone calls, but when I was making open records requests, the answers were usually predicated on billing me hundreds or thousands of dollars, since apparently the state had no way to perform digital searches of any kind with GNETS, and record searches would take dozens of hours for a government employee to carry out. Requests for interviews with the GNETS directors were also declined on multiple occasions, due to the lawsuit, as were written questions about specific aspects of the curriculum followed in GNETS, or teacher certification, etc.

I’m an independent reporter, and there where times during this project when I would have liked to be on staff again at a local publication, to see if my bosses could meet with DOE bosses, and establish some ground rules for obtaining information.

In the end, I decided that the backbone of my reporting would have to be families with children in the system. I contacted advocates and attorneys throughout the state and asked for help in making requests for interviews with families on their websites or Facebook pages. When I spoke to families, some of them also had social networks centered around children with disabilities, so I made the same request. The period that I was doing this reporting happened to coincide with the state’s decision to hold three public meetings about proposed rule changes to the GNETS system; I attended two of the three and also approached families, advocates and attorneys there with the same request.

As I spoke to families, it became clear that different ones would remember different things. Some could remember names of online programs used at the GNETS location where their children went to school; some couldn’t. And so on. After a few months, I was able to gather enough details to approach more advocates and attorneys for more in-depth interviews. I would go through what I had learned so far and ask what similarities and differences there were in the experiences of families they had worked with — and then compile basic facts such as: how many families each had gotten to know in some detail, where these families were from, how old their children were, what disabilities their children were diagnosed with, race or ethnicity, etc.

Over time, I gathered information from about 100 families, from nearly all parts of the state — either directly, from interviewing them, or indirectly, from interviews with advocates and attorneys.

After awhile, I reached a deep enough understanding of what went on in the classrooms of this parallel program for thousands of children in Georgia to pursue useful interviews with national experts on subjects such as families with autism, digital technology and its benefits for children with disabilities, segregated programs for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities, and so on.

The end result was a sense of what made this program unequal in its educational offering, often leaving children behind who could be learning academic material — and offering them little to no behavioral therapy. Notably, the few families that spoke positively about the program did so based on a negative comparison — one woman said a police officer told her that her son “would get better services in jail” than at her local school, so she felt the GNETS was at least better than being in jail.

Still, about five months into the project, I wasn’t clear about how to tell the story from my reporting. One day, I got an email from Jennifer, a woman who had seen my name and an explanation of the project online. She said that she and her husband were both teachers, and had hesitated to go public about their frustrating experience in GNETS with their teenaged son, Caleb, for fear of losing their jobs — but now they didn’t care anymore. It took a few weeks to catch up with them, but I would soon learn that Caleb had recently dropped out of high school, and had attempted suicide.

In part because they were teachers, Jennifer and her husband, Brent, were able to recount their son’s decade in GNETS in rich, even technical, detail. Their story became the spine of my story.

Since publication and as of this writing, the story has been shared or cited online by many groups that work on issues related to children with disabilities, with positive feedback. But the most rewarding response has been from several families who emailed or called me to thank me for telling part of their experience that had been untold.

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