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Georgia ‘psychoeducational’ students segregated by disability, race

Part one of a three-part series: Schools send disproportionate number of black children to programs already under fire for ‘warehousing’ students with behavioral disorders.

Above: David, 7, considered too violent for his regular school, compulsively flicks his fingers while playing at home, a method of self-regulating his behavior. *Photos by Hyosub Shin, except where indicated


David punched and kicked and spat on his teachers. He knocked over furniture. He poked a hole in a classroom wall. He pelted other students with stones and shoved a school police officer.

At age 7, David was too much for his teachers to handle. So they decided to send him to a special program — unique to Georgia — called a psychoeducational school. He was like so many others already there: male, diagnosed with a behavioral disorder — and black.

Georgia’s public schools assign a vastly disproportionate number of African American students to psychoeducational programs, segregating them not just by disability but also by race, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Black children form the majority at programs where teachers restrained children with dog leashes, where psychologists performed behavioral experiments on troubled students, and where chronically disruptive students spent time in solitary confinement, locked in rooms with bars over the windows. In one such room, euphemistically called a “time-out” area, a 14-year-old boy hanged himself.

Fifty-four percent of students in Georgia’s psychoeducational programs are African American, compared to 37 percent in all public schools statewide, the Journal-Constitution found. In half of the 24 programs, black enrollment exceeds 60 percent. In one, nine of every 10 students are African American.

The Journal-Constitution analyzed data on most of the 3,382 students assigned last fall to the psychoeducational programs, formally known as the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS. The analysis, along with interviews with parents, their lawyers, educators and others, depicts a system that provides little of the mental health treatment and other therapies for which it was created. Just 5 percent of the programs’ full-time employees are psychologists, social workers or behavior specialists. Nine programs employ more clerical workers than therapeutic professionals.

The newspaper’s findings add a new dimension to allegations that Georgia illegally segregates disabled students in GNETS programs. The U.S. Department of Justice says the Americans with Disabilities Act gives GNETS students the right to attend school in less-restrictive settings with children who are not disabled. Federal authorities may file a lawsuit to force the state to close the programs.

Many students assigned to GNETS act in ways that confound and frustrate even the best-intentioned teachers, who must discern whether a child won’t behave — or can’t. Lawyers for the state have told the Justice Department that many complaints about GNETS rely on “outdated information.” For instance, the state outlawed seclusion in locked rooms as a form of punishment and limited the use of physical restraint.

State education officials deny race plays a role in student assignment. Rather, they contend that individual needs determine where students receive services. Either way, they offer no explanation for the racial disparities.

“That’s not a calculation we look at,” said Debbie Gay, director of special education services and supports for the state Department of Education, which oversees the GNETS programs.

Others, however, see an insidious bias at work in the grouping together of black children who are deemed disruptive or even threatening.

“As a black kid, you keep getting in trouble,” said Craig Goodmark, a lawyer with Atlanta Legal Aid who represents families of disabled children. “You get in trouble, there are no mental health services. The only mental health services are in the GNETS. That sort of combines to create a reality.”

Seven-year-old David got into trouble as soon as his mother enrolled him in school after moving to Cobb County last spring. He received out-of-school suspensions for 10 of his first 17 days, then was suspended another nine days in the first two weeks of the fall semester.

His offenses, according to school documents, included “physical violence without harm,” “class disruption” and “insubordination.”

“Basically,” his mother said, “he was set up for failure.”

David’s experience illustrates the perilous journey that many students take into the most punitive and restrictive regions of Georgia’s special education system. It is especially fraught for children whose families cannot afford lawyers or consultants who advocate for their rights.

“You have to have a lawyer to receive necessary and appropriate services that you shouldn’t have to have a lawyer to get,” said Chris Vance, an Atlanta attorney who handles education cases. In the GNETS programs, she said, the services often are inadequate, if they exist at all.

“It’s just warehousing.”

A rough start

David works on schoolwork from the Georgia Cyber Academy, an online charter school. His mother removed him from the Cobb County school district rather than let him attend a psychoeducational program.

One afternoon this spring, David’s mother, Tonyi, took him to a public library branch near their home in Kennesaw. Soon he was rolling on the carpeted floor. Then he read aloud from a book, complaining when his mother’s conversation competed with his own voice. Finally, Tonyi handed him her phone so he could play Angry Birds. Eyes locked onto the screen, David played game after game, unconsciously flicking his fingers between turns to self-regulate his behavior.

Tonyi keeps a list of David’s quirks: When he sees an aquarium, he accuses the fish of staring at him. He says he wishes he were made of paper so he wouldn’t have to wash his hair. He recoils from the smells of baked chicken and skin lotion.

“He’s been this way since age 3,” Tonyi said.

“You can’t treat him like a normal child who’s going to sit there and write his assignments all day.”

Tonyi, a single parent who asked to keep her last name confidential to protect her son’s privacy, brought David to Cobb County in April 2015 when she started a new job. Educators at Baker Elementary agreed to give David the same special education services he received as a first-grader at his old school in Texas.

His first day, David hit two other children in the face with rocks. Two days later, he kicked and hit teachers and an administrator, then pushed a police officer who came to the classroom to subdue him. He was suspended for the first time barely a week later.

From the start, Tonyi said, teachers and aides suggested David’s problems were emotional – that he could control himself, if only he chose to do so.

A committee compiling a document called an individualized education program rejected Tonyi’s suggestion that David was autistic. The panel instead concluded that David had “emotional and behavioral disorder.”

Often called EBD, the disorder stirs debate among psychologists, some of whom complain its definition is ambiguous and its application arbitrary. Their profession’s guidebook, the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, doesn’t recognize EBD as a specific condition.

The U.S. Department of Education, however, allows schools to apply an EBD label to children who fail to maintain relationships, engage in “inappropriate” behavior, or display “a general or pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.”

“It was very vague,” Tonyi said of the school’s diagnosis. “They did not give a solid reason. It was a bunch of crap, honestly – their way of putting him in a bucket to make it easier for them.”

After the difficult spring at Baker, Tonyi moved David to Hayes Elementary for second grade last fall. School started Aug. 3. By Aug. 18, a Cobb school official wrote later, David “had engaged in multiple behavior infractions.” The school district transferred him to a special behavioral class at Dowell Elementary.

On his second day at Dowell, David refused to complete a writing assignment, an activity he hates, so his teacher told him to stay inside during recess. When David tried to leave the classroom, his teacher physically restrained him for three minutes.

The next day, a teacher’s aide restrained David for “running around the classroom, yelling … falling out on the floor, making noises,” according to a report she completed. During the four minutes she held him down, the aide wrote, David twice kicked her in the head, tried to bite her left arm and spat on her clothes. She said she “sustained (a) headache that lasted several hours.”

State education rules prohibit physical restraint unless a student’s conduct is placing himself or others in immediate danger.

But over 19 days, teachers and aides restrained David 11 times for a total of 63 minutes. They reported each episode on a school form beneath the slogan, “Empowering Dreams for the Future.”

The longest restraint lasted 15 minutes, after David screamed, threw items at other students, toppled desks and slapped at teachers. To keep David from biting him, a school report said, a teacher pushed his fist into the child’s mouth and held it there for several minutes. David told Tonyi he gagged and almost vomited. The school district later said the teacher appropriately controlled David’s “disruptive and assaultive behavior.”

Tonyi didn’t know it at the time, but a school committee already had decided David should transfer to a place that offered “structure and behavior supports” — the GNETS program serving Cobb County, called HAVEN Academy.

The name is an acronym for the program’s slogan: hope, achievement, victory, encouragement and nobility.

‘It’s a money issue’

Budgets to operate GNETS schools have been cut, but in a few parts of the state, construction money has been plentiful. Here, workers complete the new home of the Rutland Academy in Athens. Photo by Athens Banner-Herald

GNETS’ 24 programs operate 53 segregated “centers,” where only children with disabilities are enrolled, and satellite classrooms in 132 regular schools. GNETS now runs on a $70 million budget, approved each year by the Georgia General Assembly. But it began four decades ago in Athens as a $250,000 experiment.

Mary Wood, a special education professor at the University of Georgia, wanted to help children with psychological problems – children who, until just a few years earlier, often ended up in a state psychiatric hospital, sometimes for life.

With the quarter-million-dollar state grant, Wood started a pilot project where the staff worked with about 75 children a week. Soon, what is now the Rutland Academy was accepting children from rural school districts surrounding Athens, where many teachers acknowledged they didn’t know how to manage disruptive students.

“We were getting kids who had been expelled from kindergarten,” Wood said in a recent interview.

After a year, Georgia created three psychoeducational centers, and eventually expanded across the state.

Wood stressed treatment, along with rigorous data collection that allowed her to evaluate the effectiveness of various therapies.

Over time, she said, funding decreased and priorities shifted. The programs compiled less data, and the people in charge placed less emphasis on mental health treatment.

“Behavior management, behavior control, and making sure they’re going to achieve what they’re supposed to achieve on testing” is how Wood, now retired, describes GNETS.

“The therapeutic dimension has disappeared,” she said.

Debbie Gay, Georgia’s special education director, said GNETS programs still offer “therapeutic wraparound services.” School districts, she said, must ensure the programs serve students appropriately.

“Those children,” Gay said, “continue to be the responsibility of the local school system.”

But Wood said GNETS has become a vehicle for schools to rid themselves of difficult students who often require expensive special services.

“The home schools don’t want to take kids back,” Wood said. “They have to hire staff to help in classrooms. It’s a money issue.”

Wood remains protective of GNETS, though, and thinks the concept is sound. As for why a disproportionate number of black students end up in the programs, she said she didn’t know.

She speculated only that the reason is “cultural.”

‘The ghetto’

This building in Forest Park houses the South Metro program of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS. An Atlanta teen was assigned to the program after receiving in-patient psychiatric treatment. His mother says he spent his days at South Metro mostly watching movies and playing computer games. Photo by Mandi Albright

In February 2014, a high school freshman from Atlanta quickly learned about the culture of GNETS.

Years earlier, he had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and a therapist had recently suggested he had autism spectrum disorder. In ninth grade, his mother said, “he started acting out more than he had in the past,” and she admitted him to Peachford Hospital, a private psychiatric facility. When he got out, his special education teacher called to say he couldn’t return to his school.

An Atlanta Public Schools policy required that the boy “transition” through a GNETS program, the teacher said. In his case, that meant the South Metro program in Forest Park.

“I’d never heard of GNETS or South Metro or anything,” the mother said. She asked to not be identified to avoid embarrassing her son, now a high school senior.

She said she and her son quickly came to think of South Metro as “a hellhole.”

She described continual screaming in the halls, children of varying ages and disabilities assigned to the same classrooms, and an almost total lack of academic instruction. She said her son – who, like all his classmates in South Metro, is black – spent most of his 11 weeks there watching movies and playing computer games.

“It’s like the ghetto,” the mother said.

When she complained her son was falling behind in his school work, she said, the GNETS staff suggested he stay at South Metro longer.

“Once you’re in there, you can’t leave,” she said. “It’s like prison. You can’t just say, ‘I want my son out.’ You can’t do that.”

Kimberly Willis Green, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta schools, said the district has no policy requiring students to enter GNETS after in-patient psychiatric treatment. In this case, she said, the mother “was part of the decision making process for placement and services.”

But the mother said, “We did what we were told.”

Last fall, Atlanta sent 77 students to South Metro and its crosstown counterpart, the North Metro GNETS. Even though 20 percent of Atlanta students are white or Hispanic, all 77 students assigned to GNETS are black.

Atlanta is one of 39 Georgia school districts that assigned black students to GNETS programs last fall at a rate at least 20 percentage points higher than their African American enrollment. The racial gap is most pronounced in districts that rely heavily on GNETS.

Glynn County, in southeast Georgia, placed 70 students in the Coastal Academy GNETS program last fall; 48, or 69 percent, were black. Just 30 percent of the district’s students are black.

Nevertheless, “race and gender play absolutely no role in a placement in Coastal Academy,” said Jim Weidhaas, a spokesman for the Glynn County schools. “You get to Coastal Academy after all our resources in special ed have been exhausted.”

Georgia’s largest school district, Gwinnett County, assigned 152 students to GNETS last fall, more than all but two others. Fifty-three percent were black, while African-Americans account for just one in three Gwinnett students.

Gwinnett school officials also say the GNETS assignments are colorblind and are based on individual needs. A GNETS assignment is not meant to punish students, many of whom might otherwise end up in psychiatric institutions, said Paula Everett-Truppi, Gwinnett’s executive director of special education and psychological services.

“I look at it as a godsend,” she said. Without GNETS, “I don’t know how we would serve them here in the district.”

No other state operates a network of psychoeducational facilities like Georgia’s. The Justice Department said the network is unnecessary.

“Nearly all students in the GNETS program could receive services in more integrated settings,” the agency said in a letter to state officials last year, “but do not have the opportunity to do so.”

‘Meaner and meaner’

Seven-year-old David plays in his room at home, where he takes classes through the Georgia Cyber Academy, an online charter school. At three Cobb County elementary schools, teachers complained about his behavior and planned to send him to a psychoeducational program. The Cobb County school district labeled David as having an “emotional and behavioral disorder,” a broadly defined disability that is not recognized in psychology manuals. At Georgia Cyber Academy his diagnosis was changed to autism.

A month into the school year, David had amassed an amazing disciplinary record for a 7-year-old.

He “engaged in compliance issues” 35 times, according to school documents. He committed 25 acts of “physical aggression” and verbally disrupted his class 22 times. He “eloped” from the classroom 10 times.

The total “target behaviors,” the documents said: 92.

Still, it’s difficult to imagine David as a threatening presence. Shy around strangers, he has a slight build and closely cropped hair. But he is tall for his age – a factor, his mother thinks, in how teachers and others in the Cobb schools viewed him.

“They got meaner and meaner to him as he got taller and taller,” Tonyi said.

On Sept. 18, Tonyi went to the school to meet with teachers and a behavioral specialist. Approaching David’s classroom, she said, she heard crying, then her son’s voice: “You’re hurting me, you’re hurting me.”

An aide had pinned David to the floor, Tonyi said. The woman was digging her fingernails into David’s hands, saying, “Do you understand? Do you understand? Do you understand?”

“Get your f-ing hands off him,” Tonyi yelled, and teachers called for a school police officer. Tonyi wanted to press charges against the aide, but the woman said David had thrown a timer at her.

The police officer ended up escorting Tonyi out of the building.

The school called Tonyi a few days later after another episode of “aggressive behaviors,” a school report said. This time, convinced that the school’s staff had become abusive, Tonyi took David home and didn’t bring him back.

She later asked the school district to send David to a private school. But administrators offered just one option: GNETS.

HAVEN, in Mableton, was as much as an hour by bus from their home in Kennesaw, and Tonyi had heard disturbing stories from a colleague at work whose child attended the program.

She refused to send her son there.

Tonyi eventually enrolled David in the Georgia Cyber Academy, an online charter school. It arranges treatment, such as speech therapy, with private practitioners and lets David connect with his teachers in a virtual classroom. He’s doing well, Tonyi said, and she was ecstatic about the results of his latest evaluation.

He does not have an emotional and behavioral disorder, after all, the cyber academy’s psychologists determined. He is autistic.

-- Data Specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this story

Interactive: Georgia GNETS students mostly black, male

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia’s 24 psychoeducational programs – formally known as the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support – serves more than 3,000 students with behavioral, intellectual and neurological disorders. Federal authorities say the system illegally segregates students with disabilities. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that Georgia schools also send disproportionate numbers of African American students, especially those with behavior problems, to the programs. To view data on the GNETS program servicing your area, click on any of the Georgia counties shown below. The map and charts are color-coded by the GNETS program servicing the counties shown. To see charts associated with GNETS by region, click on the gray boxes below.

Source: AJC analysis of Georgia Department of Education data

-- Data visualization by Mandi Albright, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This story is part of a series on Georgia’s unique network of “psychoeducational” schools for children with behavioral, emotional and intellectual disabilities. More than 3,000 students across the state are assigned to the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS. The full series is available online at myajc.com.
» Last Sunday in Part 1: Georgia’s psychoeducational schools are segregated not just by disability but also by race.
» Today in Part 2: A proposed behavioral experiment leads to a showdown in court.
» Coming Sunday in Part 3: Physical restraint, a last resort in dealing with troubled students, remains a commonplace technique in GNETS programs.

Photo by Bob Andres