The Separate, Unequal Education of Students With Special Needs

Georgia’s system to teach children with disabilities falls vastly short of its promise.

A 16-year-old boy wearing a backward baseball cap, flannel shirt, and khakis stands in front of trailers and a "one way" sign with his hands in his pockets.
Caleb Hacker at his former school (Jesse Pratt Lopez)

ATLANTA—Brent Agnew remembers feeling a sense of relief when he left the meeting called to discuss his 6-year-old son Caleb’s anxiety attacks.

As he and his wife, Jennifer, walked into the parking lot outside the E. E. Butler Center in Gainesville, Georgia, that day in 2006, the two could picture a different future for Caleb.

At the meeting, a special-education teacher had recommended taking the boy out of Martin Elementary School, in a town 10 miles southwest of Gainesville, and placing him in Georgia’s Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS), a statewide system for children with “emotional and behavioral disorders.”

Agnew, who had worked as an elementary- and middle-school teacher in the same county for six years, trusted that this would be the best way to manage his son’s angry outbursts, which included knocking over chairs and desks, and get him back on track in his class work. Both parents figured Caleb would return to his neighborhood elementary school before too long.

“We saw it as a scaffolding until things got better—a short-term, possible solution,” Agnew recalled.

Ten years later, the couple sat across a wooden table from Caleb, now 16, a high-school dropout and, as of September, a survivor of a suicide attempt.

Not only did Caleb never return to his local school, but he learned little throughout his elementary-, middle- and high-school years—which included hundreds of hours struggling through computer lessons in math, science, and social studies.

His paltry education was much like that of dozens of other children in the GNETS system whose experiences this reporter researched. Aspects of Caleb’s time in GNETS were echoed by the families interviewed: a sense that they could do nothing to get their children back into local schools once they were in the system and a hopelessness in the face of violence and chaos in the classrooms. Most, but not all, reported an absence of the sort of therapeutic benefit implied by the program’s name.

* * *

There are children like Caleb and his GNETS classmates all over the country—with diagnoses including ADHD, bipolar disorder, and, increasingly, autism. They are often placed in separate classrooms within public schools and spend large numbers of hours on computers using technology that is not aligned with their specific needs. Georgia has had an entirely separate and separately funded program for children with emotional and behavioral disorders for five decades.

The Georgia program caught the attention of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which launched an investigation that lasted several years, resulting in a 21-page letter of findings in July 2015, and a lawsuit in August 2016.

According to that lawsuit, the GNETS system violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, both by segregating children with disabilities and by denying them access to an equal education.

The state of Georgia filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in October. Students like Caleb continue to languish in GNETS schools while the lawsuit continues its course. The most recent move came on December 9, when the Department of Justice filed a brief opposing the state’s motion to dismiss. Whether the Trump administration will approach the case differently is unclear.

* * *

The GNETS program is spread across Georgia in 24 locations. Since opening in Athens in 1970, the program has admitted tens of thousands of children, with a range of disabilities, under the umbrella of “emotional and behavioral disorders.”

The Justice Department’s case is the first time that the agency has charged a statewide educational system with violating the ADA, Title II, which guarantees people with disabilities full access to the same public services as the general population. “I’m confident that what’s being created [by this lawsuit] is that the ADA applies to all segregation—including education,” said Alison Barkoff, the advocacy director at the Center for Public Representation, a Massachusetts-based public-interest disability law firm.

The case has implications for school systems and children with emotional and behavioral disorders across the nation, experts say, pointing to the notion that children with disabilities, given the right kind of in-classroom supports, are capable of learning in a general-education environment and will benefit emotionally and psychologically from being in class with children without disabilities. What’s more, research has shown that integrating children with disabilities into classrooms, when accompanied by adequate teacher and staff training, yields positive academic and social results.

The federal lawsuit’s first argument—that the system is segregated—is fairly straightforward and easy to demonstrate: GNETS students spend their days in stand-alone, separate buildings or in separate classrooms within public schools, and have little to no contact with the general student population.

But the second argument—that GNETS offers an unequal education—is more complex, as it requires discovering what students and teachers are doing in those separate buildings and classrooms. It appears that little grade-level content is being taught, with much teaching relegated to online courses. What’s more, many school days are derailed by violent outbursts from students whose behaviors are not managed according to useful therapies, often resulting in visits by police and even arrests.

“Because of their disabilities … these kids need potent, individualized instruction, but instead they’re receiving one-size-fits-all—or what I call ‘one-size-fits-none’—computerized instruction and coercive behavior controls, or warehousing,” said Leslie Lipson, a counsel to the Georgia Advocacy Office, a nonprofit organization and part of a coalition that has sought to integrate GNETS students into the public-school system.

In its July 2015 letter of findings, the DOJ offered its own peek into GNETS classrooms:

Students in the GNETS Program generally do not receive grade-level instruction that meets Georgia’s State Standards like their peers in general-education classrooms. Rather, particularly at the high-school level, students in the GNETS Program often receive only computer-based instruction.

About two-thirds of the students in the system’s population are in middle or high school, according to the state education department, so if the DOJ is correct, most GNETS students are being taught largely by computers.

During a six-month period, I gathered information on the experiences of about 100 families with children in the GNETS system, via interviews with the families and by talking to advocates, attorneys, and educators. The experiences of these families generally matched the DOJ findings. Ironically, many families also said that the assistive technologies designed to help students with disabilities are seldom part of a GNETS education.

Notably, the few parents who spoke positively of the system did so out of a sense that it was the least disagreeable option for their children. One parent at a public meeting said that a police officer told her that her son “would get better services in jail” than at her local school.

Matt Cardoza, the spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, repeatedly answered queries about the GNETS system by saying that legal counsel had prohibited any substantive conversation, on the record or off. Specific queries were repeatedly answered with claims that the information was unavailable or would take dozens of hours to obtain. And Wyn Hornbuckle, the deputy director of the DOJ’s office of public affairs, did not reply to multiple emails seeking a conversation about the GNETS system.

Experts have concluded that, in Georgia and elsewhere, little or no integration with the general-student population, teachers with no specific content-area certification, ineffective treatment of behaviors caused by disabilities, and poor uses of digital technology all add up to negative and unequal educational outcomes for these children.

* * *

Brent, Jennifer, and Caleb lived with these issues for nearly a decade. What makes their experience noteworthy is that both parents were public-school teachers while Caleb was growing up; Jennifer even had a certification in special education. And still they could do nothing to improve their son’s education as he got shuttled from one GNETS center to another.

Along the way, with Caleb under doctors’ care, the Agnews tried a variety of medications to help him with his psychological problems, together with family and individual therapy. Some of this helped.

On a recent winter evening, the three of them sat in their dining room with its picture window looking down a hill to Lake Lanier, a placid contrast to Caleb’s chaotic childhood. It took the family several hours to unravel how things had gone wrong for their son in school.

The first GNETS center Caleb attended was in the building where E.E. Butler High School, a segregated school in the early 1960s, once stood. Now known as the Alpine Program, it was where 13-year-old Jonathan King, a child diagnosed with ADHD and depression, hanged himself in 2004 after being placed in a windowless “seclusion room.” That tragedy led the state, six years later, to adopt rules prohibiting such practices and limiting the use of physical restraints to control a child’s behavior.

A family of four sits and speaks to each other.
Brent and Jennifer Agnew with their children Caleb, now 16, and Olivia, 9, at the Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, Georgia (Jesse Pratt Lopez)

But as Caleb went through elementary school, he recalled, “it became more and more normal to see kids blow up and being restrained—including me.” His mother stood up from the table and demonstrated how teachers would restrain her son. She stood behind her husband, crossed his arms in front of his chest and pushed his head down on the table.

“I remember wailing and squirming around until I got out of energy,” Caleb said.

The boy now stands nearly six feet tall, with the frame of a high-school cornerback. But back then, he said, “I was a chubby little kid.”

At the time, Brent recalled with pride, Caleb was a “phenomenal reader, way above grade level.” But he struggled with math, and, less so, with science and English. By third grade, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At the start of the school year, the family went to the program’s annual Individualized Education Program meeting (or IEP, the cornerstone of special-education planning, designed for families and schools to set goals together). They were determined to get Caleb back in the local public school, with a paraprofessional to help manage his behavior.

But the county and GNETS officials said Caleb wasn’t ready and needed to stay at Alpine—a refrain the family would hear over and over in the coming years. “There was only so hard we could fight,” Jennifer recalled. “We didn’t want to jeopardize our jobs.”

By sixth grade, Caleb was at another GNETS center, in the same building where Jennifer attended middle school. By the time Caleb arrived, it was devoid of displays of student achievement in the hallways, or names of teachers on the doors, or visual reminders of teaching and learning. Classrooms were off a hallway with locked doors at both ends.

There, Caleb started using the e2020 computer program most of the day. Developed by a company now called Edgenuity, the platform is available for all K-12 subjects. “It looked amazing on paper,” Brent recalled. “You work at your own pace, get your credits—but there was no one there to help.”

Caleb’s classroom, like most in the GNETS program, had fewer than 10 students; it had a teacher trained in special education, and one or two paraprofessionals, but no teachers licensed in any academic content areas. Although Caleb took care to point out that he felt most of his teachers “cared” about him, he said none had really helped him academically. “Most of the time, they were putting out fires,” he said.

“Half the time he would just sit down and listen to music all day, watch movies on Netflix, and sleep,” Brent said. They had a new principal nearly every year.

Throughout middle school, he was “still great in reading,” said Jennifer, but behind in all other subjects. Jennifer had started a three-ring binder notebook when Caleb was in elementary school to keep track of his IEP meetings. Then, she said, when she saw that the GNETS program would not even follow such simple procedures listed in Caleb’s IEP as allowing him to use a calculator during a math test to reduce his anxiety, she started to give up. “We just stopped keeping up with it,” she said.

Caleb’s high school was a two-hour bus ride away, to the Futures Program, another GNETS center located in a building where black students once studied during de jure segregation. (Some studies have suggested that Georgia and other states’ disproportionate numbers of black, male students in their special-education and emotional- and behavioral-disorder programs have resulted in a new form of racial segregation; according to a GNETS official, in 2014-15, when 37 percent of Georgia’s K-12 population was black, 51 percent of GNETS students were black and 80 percent were male.)

Like many GNETS centers in rural areas, Futures drew students from a handful of surrounding counties. Caleb spent two more years mostly in front of computers, although students would often lose the Wi-Fi connection throughout the day. Occasionally, a paraprofessional substituted for the teacher; on those days, the students wouldn’t even go online. “Everybody in class, we did the least possible,” Caleb said. “We used Pandora to message each other. We watched movies.”

And Caleb got arrested several times—for kicking a door, for punching in a window. Jennifer would get calls at work and have to pick him up. She continued to believe that the program was not following her son’s IEP and not helping him succeed behaviorally or academically.

The Agnews pulled Caleb out of GNETS last May. He sat around the house most days, until one day in September when he swallowed 17 Abilify pills.

* * *

Most of the Agnews’ experiences resemble those of dozens of families with children in GNETS. Parents I interviewed frequently pointed to GNETS’s lack of useful behavioral therapy of any kind; underlined unclear or seemingly impossible-to-reach criteria for exiting the system; and described a lack of in-class or take-home work. One parent said she saw no schoolwork from her son for seven months.

Many parents—especially those with middle-school- and high-school-age children—noted the lack of teachers trained in specific content areas, the reliance on computers to teach those subjects, and the absence of assistive technology.

“Online instruction should be used as a tool, but in GNETS it’s used to say, ‘We have that content,’” said Jonathan Zimring, an attorney who has worked in disability law for four decades.

“With the use of computers and technology in the [GNETS] classroom, you have to ask, ‘Is it just babysitting the child, or is it providing them with stimulation that will help them learn?’” said Talley Wells, the director of the Disability Integration Project at Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

A 2010 state audit of the program reached many of the same conclusions. What’s more, wrote the auditors, the system “cannot demonstrate that the services provided to a student in the GNETS program have resulted in improvements to behavior or academic performance.” The system, the audit noted, did not break out data for students, or centers, or the program as a whole, and instead grouped data for all GNETS students together with data from the local public schools they originally attended.

At that time, the state pledged to maintain “program-level files” moving forward, in order to more carefully track student academic progress. The current GNETS director, Nakeba Rahming, said the system plans to adopt i-Ready, an online assessment and accountability platform. But the state Education Department wouldn’t clarify how i-Ready differs from the “program-level” files, or if those files had been used to any benefit.

The GNETS program, experts say, has never been able to show its results. “We’ve asked, ‘Where are your data to show that what you’re doing is meaningful and effective?’” said Zimring.

* * *

Georgia isn’t the only state where local school districts place children with emotional and behavioral disorders in programs that achieve little academic progress and rely heavily on computers. Marcie Lipsitt, a Michigan-based special-education advocate whose federal complaints about the use of online instruction have prompted nearly 200 investigations, said that e2020 and similar platforms “are very common in so-called emotionally impaired programs.”

Sean J. Smith, a researcher at the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities, released a report in January 2016 after evaluating more than a thousand lessons from a range of K-12 online learning platforms used for children with disabilities. The report sought to gauge how the online lessons reached “struggling learners.” Its conclusion: the platforms were “poorly aligned” with “the specific learning needs of students with disabilities.”

“Digital technology has been used inefficiently with children with disabilities,” Smith said in an interview from his office at the University of Kansas, where he is an associate professor in special education. “If you’re deficient in a skill—say, math—instead of providing you instruction, [many online lessons] give you a series of drills and practice exercises.” Couple this with the lack of instruction from teachers certified in content areas, he said, and learning suffers.

This state of affairs doesn’t just affect students whose disabilities cause them to struggle. It also affects those who are academically advanced, since the teaching and online platforms are not tailored to their needs, either.

Take Kellan Powell, a 12-year-old who loves science and was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum several years ago. He’s now at Mainstay Academy, his second GNETS program, in Fayetteville, a town about 25 miles south of Atlanta.

Over French fries at a McDonald’s near Mainstay, Kellan told me the theoretical physics behind Portal, a video game that involves moving through three-dimensional space, and about how to build a compressed-air rocket. But he described science at school as “boring.” At school, he uses an online program called MobyMax. The program takes him from one lesson to the next, with questions and vocabulary at the end of each lesson, much like a textbook, he said.

“I listen to music without lyrics on my headphones; it helps me concentrate, and the work just keeps coming,” he said. Kellan spends “pretty much the whole day on the computer,” he said, including playing video games during breaks from schoolwork. In the absence of teachers certified to teach science, he does no labs, nor any sort of hands-on work, which he said would “definitely be more fun.” Still, his best grades are in science and English.

As for assistive technology, parents with children whose disabilities affect their verbal or written communication, for example, have found that certain computer programs or devices that could help with those issues often go unmentioned at IEP meetings and unused in the GNETS program. Again, the result is stunted learning.

“The thing about IEPs,” said Shannon Des Roches Rosa, an editor at a website called “Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism,” “is that even though technically everybody’s supposed to be fighting for the student’s needs, parents, if they’re new to this, don’t even know what to fight for, or … ask for. And there’s never enough [financial] resources … [so] the system is only going to do what families push for.”

* * *

On September 19, Jennifer drove Caleb 60 miles southwest of Gainesville to Hillside, a residential facility in Atlanta for children and adolescents with emotional and behavioral issues. The plan was for Caleb to stay a month, to help lift him out of the depression that led him to attempt suicide.

An older boy leans over his sister and a music stand. A cross is in the background alongside guitars and a keyboard.
Caleb Hacker and his sister, Olivia Agnew, reading music at the Lakewood Baptist Church (Jesse Pratt Lopez)

“I hated it at first, being so far from home,” Caleb said. “But over time, I knew it was the best thing for me.”

At Hillside, Caleb took classes appropriate for his grade level, with a key difference from the GNETS program. “I had so much help, one-on-one, instead of just telling me to go online and do it,” he said. The teacher encouraged him to ask questions and go at his own pace. “I had never touched geometry before, and I got a 90 on an analytic-geometry test,” he said, beaming. “After that, I was getting stuff done [in class]. My self-esteem went, whoom!”

Since his return home, Caleb and his family have had to face the reality that the local school district will only admit him to GNETS. He doesn’t want to go back to GNETS, but he does want to obtain a high-school diploma. The only choice, they say, is to seek a GED. They talk about college, which Caleb still finds “scary.”

After listening to Caleb describe his experience at Hillside, Brent leans into the table. “This makes me think, ‘What if?’ Where would he be if he had the support he needed in public school? We will never know.”

This article was produced as a project for the National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the Center for Health Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.