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DOJ: Georgia Must Change How It Segregates Disabled Students From Their Peers

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The U.S. Justice Department says the state of Georgia is illegally segregating some students with disabilities. It says a state program discriminates by keeping children with behavioral disorders apart from their peers and by depriving them of extracurricular activities. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Elly Yu reports.

ELLY YU, BYLINE: Eleven-year-old Kellan Powell spends a lot of time here in his backyard. It's full of trees, worms and other creatures. Today, he shows me where he collects pieces of quartz that are nestled under a tree.

KELLAN: See? Here's one. This one has a lot of iron in it, too.

YU: How do you know that?

KELLAN: Look at all the red in it.

YU: He says science is his favorite subject, but at his school, it's taught from a computer. Kellan is a sixth grader at a special education program in Fayetteville, south of Atlanta. He has autism spectrum disorder. For the most part, he says he likes his teachers.

KELLAN: But the sad part is I don't get art or music class, and I also don't get science labs.

YU: That worries his mom, Kerstin Powell.

KERSTIN POWELL: He's missing out on a lot.

YU: Kellan started attending the school about three years ago. It's part of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS, which serves students with emotional and behavioral disorders and autism. His mom says Kellan was placed there after he had meltdowns at his other school - kicking, screaming and sometimes hitting teachers. She says she's happy that his new teachers better understand his behavior and help him to self-regulate, but she says the program feels isolating.

POWELL: There's nobody from our neighborhood. There's no little friends. It feels like it's a dirty, little secret, like he's been shut up and put away.

YU: The Department of Justice has called it segregation. In a July letter to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, federal officials say the state's program, which serves about 5,000 students, unnecessarily keeps them apart in remote wings or separate schools. They're often in substandard buildings and lack activities like PE and extracurricular programs. The DOJ says that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and can deprive children with disabilities the skills to be part of mainstream society.

RON HAGER: Students learn from each other.

YU: Ron Hager is a senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network.

HAGER: So if you have a whole group of people altogether that are all, you know, having inappropriate behaviors, that's their model. That's their peer group.

YU: But he says Georgia isn't alone when it comes to treating students with disabilities this way.

HAGER: I do know that many states, this is the default, the way that they deliver services.

YU: The Georgia attorney general's office and the State Department of Education declined to comment on the letter because of the pending nature of the case. Angela Delvin-Brown, an education consultant says a different setting might be necessary for some children with disabilities.

ANGELA DELVIN-BROWN: I would say that the percentage of students like that is small - very, very small.

YU: Brown, who's worked for the Georgia Department of Education, says just having separate facilities makes it easier to send students away instead of adapting classrooms. Kellan's program is housed at a middle school that had been previously closed due to budget shortfalls.

POWELL: This is the school, and it's just the hallway down there.

YU: Kerstin Powell, along with Kellan, show me around outside the brick building.

KELLAN: Want to see a place I love to go?

YU: He takes me to the side of the building where there's a strip of grass. The school doesn't have a playground or a library. And Powell says the building's had some problems, including bug infestations.

POWELL: You want to be careful with lunches. They need to be double-bagged because of the insects.

YU: Aside from the building itself, Powell says she worries whether the school is preparing her son to go to college.

POWELL: He's very interested in immunology, very interested in bioengineering and things like that. And is he going to be able to have that opportunity?

YU: She says she hopes the DOJ's actions will lead to that. For NPR News, I'm Elly Yu in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.