Fifty years ago next week, the Voting Rights Act put mostly Southern states, including Georgia and Alabama, under federal Department of Justice supervision for discriminatory polling practices. Now Georgia is again under Justice Department scrutiny, this time over allegations of a different kind of discrimination.
According to a letter from Washington sent to Gov. Nathan Deal and state Attorney General Sam Olens on July 15, Georgia is unlawfully segregating public school students with behavioral disabilities -- restricting not only their contact with their peers in school, but also their reasonable and lawful access to school facilities and programs.
According to a Wednesday report in the Washington Post, an email from Olens' office said: "We have been in contact with the Department of Justice since receiving the letter, but we have not responded formally in writing. For the time being we do not intend to comment further on this matter."
The program in question is the 45-year-old Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS), which operates in public school facilities around the state. The most scathing indictment in the Justice report is probably this one:
"Students in the GNETS Program also often lack access to electives and extracurricular activities, such as after-school athletics or clubs. Moreover, many of the students in the GNETS Program attend school in inferior facilities in various states of disrepair that lack many of the features and amenities of general education schools, such as gymnasiums, cafeterias, libraries, science labs, music rooms, or playgrounds. Some GNETS Centers are located in poor-quality buildings that formerly served as schools for black students during de jure segregation, which have been repurposed to house the GNETS Program."
One parent is quoted as saying the program is "a warehouse for kids the school system doesn't want or know how to deal with." Another said her daughter was humiliated at not being allowed to have her picture in the school yearbook.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a school in Cordele has separate entrances, rest rooms and lunch periods for students with these disabilities, and one in Rome does not allow GNETS students to leave their basement class area or interact with other students at all.
One of the absurd ironies of the conditions described in the Justice letter is that the state's handling of students with behavioral problems is needlessly expensive: According to the AJC, the state's own auditors concluded as far back as 2008 that Georgia could save about $28 million a year by educating these students in regular school settings.
As yet, there has been no official public response from the state, nor has any individual school or school system commented on the accuracy of these reports or on the specific circumstances involved. All concerned need to avail themselves of that opportunity, and sooner rather than later.