Dept. of Justice plans to slap GA with lawsuit

Dept. of Justice plans to slap GA with lawsuit
One mother has been concerned about her child's social well-being during the segregation (Source: WALB)
One mother has been concerned about her child's social well-being during the segregation (Source: WALB)
Shanika Owens (Source: WALB)
Shanika Owens (Source: WALB)
Tommy Coleman (Source: WALB)
Tommy Coleman (Source: WALB)
J.D. Sumner (Source: WALB)
J.D. Sumner (Source: WALB)

DOUGHERTY CO., GA (WALB) - The state of Georgia is being accused of unlawful segregation. The Department of Justice plans to sue the state for violating federal law with Georgia's Network for Education and Therapeutic Support programs.

There are 27 GNET programs throughout the state. One of them is in Dougherty County.

The Department of Justice says the programs violate federal law by segregating students with behavior-related disabilities.

Shanika Owens' son Jaelyn was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old.

Beginning in kindergarten, Jaelyn joined the GNET program at the Sylvandale facility.

"He didn't want to be in the back of the line, he wanted to be in the front and you would redirect him and he would get real upset. So that was the targeting issue," said Owens.

Now at 15 years old, Jaelyn was able to go to Merry Acres Middle School and later Albany High school, still part of the GNET program.

"His behavior has come down a lot but he is still in that bracket," said Owens.

School is a little different for close to 50 students from Dougherty, Worth, Lee, Terrell, and Baker Co. They come to the GNET Sylvandale facility.

The Sylvandale facility is a school the Department of Justice says is a civil rights issue.

Tommy Coleman is the attorney for the Dougherty County Board of Education.

"They seem to think that almost all students need to be mainstreamed into the same classroom with every other student who does not have a disability," said Coleman. "They feel like the interaction between students with disabilities and those without are mandated by the law and to keep them separate in any way is discriminatory."

In the Dougherty County School system, only the most severe students are in the separate GNET facility.

It's the parent's choice whether their child attends.

"We present all the information about the program, what kind of plan and education they will be receiving and then we leave it up to the parent about where they want their child to go," said J.D. Sumner, DCSS spokesperson.

Sumner says most parents are supportive. One parent even dropped off a cake on Friday to thank the teachers.

"Sometimes we get students who meet that criteria early and are ready to go to a traditional school environment and those are our success stories," said Sumner.

As for Owens, she says she just wishes her son could have more opportunities interacting outside his special education classroom.

"I feel like the regular ed and special needs kids need to come together so they know how to treat them," said Owens.

As far as the lawsuit, Coleman says if it goes to litigation, the suit could go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.

The DCSS superintendent met with staff and Coleman. They are hoping to set up a meeting with the head of GNET in Atlanta next week.

In a statement, the school system said:

It is our hope that they'll be willing to work with us to make changes that are in the best interests of the children and to facilitate the transition of those students in a safe and orderly fashion with the least amount of disruption.

If nothing prevails with the lawsuit, the system plans to renovate the former Magnolia Elementary School.

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