Education

State declares Muscogee County special-education center unsafe, unhealthy

rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

A Muscogee County School District building for special-education students has been declared unsafe and unhealthy, and the state has ordered the program to be immediately moved to a fit facility.

One week before the new school year starts, the Muscogee County School Board will conduct a called meeting Monday at 6 p.m. to vote on superintendent David Lewis’ recommendation to move the program from the Woodall Center, 4312 Harrison Ave., to J.D. Davis Elementary School, 1822 Shepherd Drive. Davis has the necessary space to house the program, meet the needs of the students and comply with the Georgia Department of Education facility requirements, according to the meeting’s agenda.

Woodall has housed one of 24 programs in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, which serves students with severe emotional or behavioral disorders. The total enrollment in GNETS schools was 4,684 last school year, Georgia Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Friday. Muscogee’s GNETS program has approximately 40 students, according to MCSD’s news release.

Woodall is one of nine GNETS facilities, which served a total of 514 students last school year, the state has determined to be unfit for those programs and ordered school districts to find other locations, Cardoza said.

Woodall is the GNETS program for students in Muscogee, Harris, Chattahoochee, Clay, Quitman, Randolph, Stewart and Talbot counties and Fort Benning.

One year ago, the U.S. Department of Justice completed an investigation of GNETS and determined that the state’s operation and administration of the program violates Title II of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by providing “unequal” opportunities and “unnecessarily segregating students with disabilities from their peers,” Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general, wrote to Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens in a letter dated July 15, 2015.

The letter cited the Woodall Center as an example of unequal opportunities, saying no student there “had ever participated in any extracurricular activities.”

But the state’s order to move students from Woodall and eight other GNETS centers isn’t based on the alleged civil rights violations, Cardoza said.

“It is based on the facilities inspection, which is why only some are being asked to relocate from their current facilities, not all,” he said. “The program and services will still be in place.”

The Ledger-Enquirer asked Cardoza for a copy of Woodall’s inspection report but hasn’t received it. Gupta, however, described Woodall’s condition in the July 15, 2015, letter.

“We observed that the window air conditioners work only sporadically, and the interior of the building was dirty,” Gupta wrote. “There was no gymnasium for physical education.”

In that letter, Gupta outlined the U.S. Department of Justice’s recommended remedial measures for Georgia to address the alleged civil rights violations. They include developing and implementing a comprehensive plan to deliver “mental health and behavior-related educational services in ways that do not discriminate on the basis of disability,” Gupta wrote. “The State must ensure that students in or at risk of placement in the GNETS Program are educated in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

It’s unclear whether moving the students from the Woodall Center to Davis Elementary would meet that requirement, although MCSD said in its news release, “There are no changes proposed to the services provided to students through the GNETS Program.”

Gupta’s letter didn’t mention any deadline for Georgia to comply with the federal government’s recommendations but warned it “may initiate a lawsuit pursuant to the ADA if we determine that we cannot secure compliance voluntarily to correct the deficiencies identified in this letter.”

One year later, in a letter dated July 21, 2016, an attorney representing the state wrote to Gupta with an update on the effort to address the federal government’s findings about GNETS. Josh Belinfante of the Atlanta law firm Robbins Ross Alloy Belinfante Littlefield LLC wrote that the GaDOE hired an architectural firm to inspect each GNETS facility and determined that students in nine of the facilities “need to be relocated before the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.”

One day later, in a letter dated July 22, 2016, Georgia Board of Education chairman Michael Royal informed Muscogee County School Board chairman Rob Varner that the Georgia Department of Education and the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission have identified Woodall “as a facility where children cannot continue to be served. Therefore, students receiving services at this facility must immediately be transitioned out of this site before the beginning of the school year.”

Royal mentioned “unsafe and unhealthful conditions” at Woodall but wasn’t specific beyond that description. He added, “The State Board and the Georgia Department of Education fully understand that transitioning these students at this time will be challenging.”

The Ledger-Enquirer asked Cardoza why this directive was made less than one month before the new school year starts.

“I do not believe there is a final report yet,” Cardoza wrote, “but the timeframe and decision, as our board chair stated, is because we just recently received some of the report that showed the facilities issues.”

The other GNETS facilities the state has declared unfit are in Carrollton and the counties of Appling, Toombs, Glynn, Tift, Dougherty, Baldwin and McDuffie.

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