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State behavioral program serving Gainesville, Hall students under federal scrutiny
Justice Department has ruled state is illegally segregating students
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Each year, students with behavioral or psychological disabilities are sent from local public schools to the Futures Program.

The program, previously housed at the Academy at Wood’s Mill in Gainesville, is part of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, which is under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Eleven years after the suicide of a local GNETS teen, an investigation released last Wednesday by the department found the program provides unequal opportunities to students with disabilities, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.


The program and the problem

Designed to help local school districts serve students with severe behavioral and psychological disabilities, GNETS includes 24 programs throughout the state.

Students are referred by their local school district after documented evidence of the severity of their condition. They are then removed from the classroom with their typical peers and educated separately in the Futures Program.

The program is funded through the organization Pioneer RESA, not by a local school district. It serves students in Hall, Forsyth, Habersham, Dawson, Stephens, White and Union counties’ public schools.

Until last May, the local program was housed in the Academy at Wood’s Mill in Gainesville. The school is being converted into a Gainesville High School Ninth Grade Center, however, and the program is moving to a location in Habersham.

“The school is a regional center that serves several school districts,” said Merrianne Dyer, former Gainesville City Schools’ superintendent. “It’s not operated by the school district, but if the district has a student that can attend the school, they have a sort of contract with them.”

The justice department’s criticisms are not the first for the Gainesville-based program, however.

Through 2012, the Futures Program in Gainesville was known as an Alpine Psychoeducational Program center, where 13-year-old Jonathan King hanged himself while inside a “seclusion room” in 2004.

The Times reported in 2010 that the unfurnished, 8-foot-by-8-foot room was used for dealing with unruly children. But Jonathan’s parents, Don and Tina King, said they never saw the room until his death.

The Kings filed a lawsuit in 2009, but a Hall County Superior Court judge and the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled there was not a case for a civil rights complaint against the school.

Attempts to reach officials from the Futures Program or Pioneer RESA were not answered or returned last week.

Dyer said, however, the Alpine center was regularly monitored during her time as superintendent.

“Not because of that issue,” Dyer said of the concerns regarding King’s death at the center. “It was because of the focus on equity in psycho-ed centers. At the time, there were no issues noted there.”

The justice department’s investigation into GNETS did not address King’s case, nor concerns regarding safety of these students, however. Instead, the investigation highlighted the inequality created by these segregated programs.

The report quoted one parent who said, “GNETS is not an educational facility —  it’s where kids are sent to be babysat.”


Segregation vs. inclusion

GNETS’ argument for segregating students with behavioral disabilities is to prevent “other more restrictive placements,” such as permanent residential care.

But the justice department argues Georgia relies too heavily on these segregation methods.

Amy Gates, executive director of Challenged Child and Friends in Gainesville, said she knows of few programs or schools in Georgia with an inclusion model, providing atypical students with the services they need alongside their typical peers.

“I found, coming from Connecticut, significantly less inclusion down here,” said Gates, who joined Challenged Child and Friends last year. “Obviously, that’s not a scientific study, but just what I’ve run across. It’s very different.”

Challenged Child and Friends is a full-inclusion program serving children 6 weeks old up to 6 years. It provides classroom education for typical children and those with disabilities together, and offers speech, occupational and physical therapy.

“People often assume that the benefit really lies with our kids with disabilities, and they do benefit and have strong social models,” Gates said. “Their typical peers do teach them how to interact appropriately, their play skills, social skills and the things that come naturally to our typical peers.”

But Gates said there are benefits for typical students as well, who learn tolerance, compassion and leadership from a young age.

“So many of us didn’t grow up that way,” Gates said. “We grew up with kids with significant disabilities being secluded or just ‘somewhere else.’ But when you look at the prevalence of autism today especially, our kids are going to interact with someone who has autism at some point in their life.”

The justice department’s recommended remedy for GNETS begins with bringing services for students with disabilities back to the general education schools, in an “integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

Gates said parents of typically developing students who are wary of students with disabilities entering their child’s classroom have little reason to fear the distraction they may pose.

“There are legitimate fears for parents,” Gates said. “But they’re not based in any research.”

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