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State education official defends behavioral program
Board of Education Chairman: We'll continue to improve GNETS 'lawsuit or no lawsuit'
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Nakeba Rahming - photo by Erin O. Smith

A top-ranking Georgia Department of Education official said Wednesday that “lawsuit or no lawsuit” state education leaders would continue making improvements to a 47-year-old program being challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice.

State Board of Education Chairman Mike Royal made his comment at a public hearing seeking feedback from the public on improving rules related to the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support. The hearing was held at Buford Middle School.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the State of Georgia in August of last year alleging that its treatment and segregation of students with disabilities in the GNETS program violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Royal, who represents Forsyth and Gwinnett in the 7th Congressional District on the state Board of Education, defended the program established in 1970.

“Our goal is to create opportunities for these kids to achieve the most that they can and to have the best education provided them possible,” Royal said. “To do that, that’s what this process is all about. That’s what we’re trying to do as a state. We’ve continually been moving toward that. Lawsuit or no lawsuit, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Prior to filing its lawsuit, the Justice Department in July 2015 issued a findings letter alleging that Georgia’s mental health and therapeutic educational services for students with behavior-related disabilities unnecessarily segregates students in GNETS when they could be served with their peers in general education settings.

The DOJ lawsuit remains active in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

At any given time, GNETS serves about 5,000 students throughout the state.

In 2004, a 13-year-old student hanged himself inside a secluded room at a GNETS program in Gainesville. The incident at the former Alpine Psychoeducational program center in Gainesville was not included in DOJ’s findings letter. Following the boy’s death, the GNETS program was moved to Habersham County.

Royal said the state Board of Education is defending the program. However, he said a complete review of the program is underway, which led to the closing of nine GNETS facilities.

He said the process looks to improve GNETS in three areas: facilities, educational opportunities and therapy.

“The biggest challenge we have as statewide leadership is setting policy for the entire state of Georgia where the needs of one district area may be vastly different than the needs of another area,” Royal said. “That’s what we’re trying to do through the stakeholder input in the meetings that we’re having. We don’t have all the answers, but we want to be part of the solution and create opportunities for these kids.”

Three more public hearings on the GNETS rules are scheduled, including one culminating at a State Board of Education meeting in Atlanta on June 15.

Nakeba Rahming, GNETS executive director, said organizers have received about 100 emails and some 50 comments from previous feedback sessions, including one held at Gainesville High School in October.

“We went back and made a lot of revisions to the first draft. So, we sent that out again with hopes that we would get additional comments prior to going to adoption (of new rules),” Rahming said.