Parents and Advocates Sue State of Georgia Over Separate and Unequal Education for Thousands of Students with Disabilities

Parents of Children with Disabilities, The Georgia Advocacy Office, The Center for Public Representation, The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, The Arc, DLA Piper LLP, and The Goodmark Firm File Class Action Lawsuit Against State of Georgia

ATLANTA, GA (Oct. 11, 2017) – Today, parents of children with disabilities, the Georgia Advocacy Office, the Center for Public Representation, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, The Arc, DLA Piper LLP, and the Goodmark Law Firm filed a class action lawsuit in federal court alleging that the State of Georgia has discriminated against thousands of public school students with disabilities by providing them with a separate and unequal education via the State’s Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports Program (GNETS).

The complaint filed in United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, alleges that the State, in denying GNETS students the opportunity to be educated with their non-disabled peers in neighborhood schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. For more information about the litigation, please visit www.centerforpublicrep.org/court_case/gao-v-georgia/.

“The Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), the independent Protection and Advocacy System for People with Disabilities in Georgia, is demanding the State abandon GNETS and stop segregating youth with disabilities,” said Ruby Moore, Executive Director of GAO. “GNETS programs are a relic of a time where people with disabilities were thought to be uneducable. GAO has and will continue to fight against GNETS and any program or service that unnecessarily segregates people with disabilities.”

GNETS are segregated programs that serve only students with disabilities, housed in entirely separate buildings or in separate wings of neighborhood schools, for students who need services for their disability-related behaviors. In 2016, over 5,000 students with disabilities were placed in GNETS. Most of these students are African-American and 100% of the students enrolled experience disabilities. “The State of Georgia’s segregated GNETS system flies in the face of long-standing Supreme Court precedent,” said Alison Barkoff, Director of Advocacy for the Center for Public Representation. “The Court recognized long ago that ‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’ And the Supreme Court in Olmstead v. L.C. made clear that the ADA forbids the needless isolation or segregation of people with disabilities, because it deprives them of opportunities like getting an education and social contacts with peers.”

GNETS students are denied access to physical education, art, music, and extra-curricular activities, and many GNETS centers have no library, cafeteria, gym, science lab, music room, or playground. Some GNETS centers are located in buildings that were used to teach African-American students during the Jim Crow era, much of the instruction is performed via online programs rather than with certified teachers, and educational curricula are not aligned with State standards. Accordingly, GNETS students rarely earn a diploma. The GNETS graduation rate is only 10% in contrast to a nearly 80% graduation rate in neighborhood schools. Students in GNETS are physically restrained on a routine basis, nearly 10,000 times in 2014-2016. “Although advertised as ‘therapeutic,’ GNETS are anything but – often student behavior worsens once placed in GNETS because of the harsh and punitive atmosphere in the schools,” said attorney Craig Goodmark. “Decades of research and practice show that students with and without disabilities do best academically and socially when they learn alongside each other.”

Instead of providing local school districts with the resources to offer the services these students need, the State is spending millions of dollars on segregated settings. “GNETS was intended to be a placement of the last resort. Instead, GNETs has become a dumping ground for students whom local school districts do not want to educate,” said Ira Burnim, the Bazelon Center’s Legal Director. “Georgia is the only state in the country to systematically segregate students with disabilities on a statewide basis. This is a plain violation of federal disability laws intended to ensure that students with disabilities are able to learn and receive services in integrated settings along with their peers without disabilities.”

In response to the efforts of a broad coalition of stakeholders seeking to end the illegal segregation of students in GNETS, the Georgia Coalition for Equity in Education, and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) performed a multi-year investigation (www.ada.gov/olmstead/documents/gnets_lof.pdf) of GNETS. The investigation eventually culminated in a lawsuit against the State, alleging that the State’s administration of the GNETS system violates the ADA by “unnecessarily segregating students with disabilities from their peers” and providing “unequal” education opportunities to GNETS students. That lawsuit has been put on hold pending a decision from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals regarding DOJ’s authority to bring suit.

“The Arc has long fought for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to be educated in their neighborhood schools with appropriate services, supplementary aids, and supports,” said Stacey Ramirez, Director of The Arc’s Georgia state office. “Georgia’s systemic segregation of students with disabilities is unacceptable to The Arc and its constituents in Georgia. With DOJ’s lawsuit now on hold, the children of Georgia can wait no longer.”

About The Arc

The Arc is the largest national community-based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and their families. In partnership with its network of 650 chapters across the country, The Arc works to promote and protect the rights of people with I/DD to live, work, and learn in the community free from discrimination. Through its Georgia state office, The Arc seeks to ensure that students with I/DD throughout the state can meaningfully access the myriad benefits, programs, and services offered to students in neighborhood public schools. To learn more, visit www.thearc.org.

About The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law is a national legal advocacy organization protecting and advancing the rights of people with mental disabilities. The Center promotes laws and policies that enable people with mental disabilities to live independently in their own homes and

communities, and to enjoy the same opportunities that everyone else does. For more information, visit www.bazelon.org.

About The Center for Public Representation

The Center for Public Representation (CPR) is a national legal advocacy center for people with disabilities. For 40 years, CPR has been enforcing and expanding the rights of people with disabilities and others who are in segregated settings. CPR uses legal strategies, advocacy, and policy to design and implement systemic reform initiatives to that promote integration and full community participation. To learn more about our work, visit www.centerforpublicrep.org.

About DLA Piper LLP

DLA Piper is a global law firm with lawyers located in more than 40 countries throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, positioning us to help clients with their legal needs around the world. To learn more, visit www.dlapiper.com/en/us.

About The Georgia Advocacy Office

The Georgia Advocacy Office is Georgia’s designated Protection and Advocacy System. GAO envisions a Georgia where all people have value, visibility and voice; where even the most difficult and long-lasting challenges are addressed by ordinary citizens acting voluntarily on behalf of each other; and where the perception of disability is replaced by the recognition of ability. GAO’s mission is to organize our resources and follow our values and legal mandates in ways which substantially increase the number of people who are voluntarily standing beside and for people in Georgia who have significant disabilities and mental illness. To learn more, visit www.thegao.org.

About The Goodmark Law Firm

Since 1999, Mr. Goodmark has dedicated a majority of his practice to representing families, teachers and students in their pursuit of equality, fairness and justice in Georgia’s schools. To learn more, visit www.goodmarklaw.com.

National Disability Employment Month: Push for Progress

By: Nicole Jorwic, Director of Rights Policy, The Arc of the United States.

October marks National Disability Employment Month – it’s a time to reflect on the progress of making employment for people with disabilities a reality, and to push forward on necessary changes to make that a reality for more individuals throughout the country. People with disabilities have shown their desire to work and thrive in their workplaces and communities. Employers all over the country are also recognizing the potential for people with disabilities in their workplaces and the contributions they can make to the culture of their business, and to the economy.

The Arc@Work is supporting employers large and small across the country with targeted outreach and recruitment, employer staffing solutions, and training and consultation. Much of this work is done on the ground via many of our 650 chapters nationwide.

As businesses continue to show their commitment to adding individuals with disabilities to all levels of their workforce, we must also support individuals with disabilities to develop the skills they need to find the jobs that they desire, AND to build careers in the field of their choice. Individuals with disabilities are succeeding in meaningful careers in a wide range of private businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations, while others are becoming entrepreneurs with their own micro-businesses.

It is important to remember why a job is so important to an individual with a disability. My brother Chris is 28 and has autism, and I asked him why getting a job is important to him. Here is his response:

“I think that a job is essential to a person with a disability because it gives us purpose, and common ground to build on with the rest of the world. All my siblings get so much of their identities from their jobs, I should have the same chance. All my brothers and sisters in disability deserve the opportunities to work in our communities, for fair pay, so that we can fulfill our destinies.”

As we work on the federal and state level to align policies and practices to make the road to employment smoother for individuals with disabilities, no matter their level of need, we must remember that a job is an essential part of what gives someone standing in their community. The value in having a response to “what do you do?” is immeasurable for individuals with disabilities across the country, including my brother Chris.

October 6, 2017 – The Arc’s Statement on House Passage of its Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 Budget

Washington, DC – Federal budgets lay out the Nation’s priorities for spending and revenue for the decade ahead. The one passed this week by the House of Representatives reflects priorities that can do real and lasting harm to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). Entitled “Building a Better America,” this FY 2018 budget would most benefit our wealthiest citizens and it would create a far worse America for most people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) by prioritizing tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy over funding for critical disability programs.

The House of Representatives officially began the process of developing a budget for Fiscal Year 2018 by passing a budget resolution that includes provisions which would undermine the foundation of community living for people with I/DD for the second time this year. People with I/DD, their families, caregivers, service providers, and advocates have barely had time to rest from battling to protect Medicaid from massive cuts and fundamental restructuring based on similar language from the joint House-Senate budget resolution for FY 2017 earlier in the year.

The Senate is now working on its version of a budget resolution and, once passed, the House and Senate will have to negotiate which version to adopt or whether to jointly adopt a compromise version. Advocates will continue to oppose inclusion of language deemed harmful to people with disabilities.

The Arc and Baymont Inn & Suites – A Welcoming Partnership for Job Seekers with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: The Billy Jake Story

Billy Jake CelebrationAt the end of 2016, The Arc@Work launched a nationwide partnership with Baymont Inn & Suites. Through this initiative, The Arc@Work is helping individual hotels fill the brand-new Hometown Host position. The Hometown Host ensures guests feel at home and that there is plenty of delicious food throughout the daily breakfast service. The role is a symbol of the brand’s emphasis on neighborly service and dedication to community. The collaboration is a win-win for both organizations: helping individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) secure a regular job in the community while assisting Baymont hotel owners in finding reliable, passionate employees who can connect with their guests and provide them with a great experience.

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, The Arc@Work interviewed Billy Jake, the first individual placed through this new initiative at his local Baymont Inn & Suites hotel in Celebration, Florida. Because of his interest in food, this young man initially applied to a local grocery store. Unfortunately, this endeavor did not turn out as he had hoped. Then one day Billy Jake’s job coach, Tre Johnson, informed him of The Arc@Work’s partnership with Baymont Inn & Suites. Thus, began a year of hard work and patience that ultimately landed Billy Jake the Hometown Host position.

During his first few months with the company, Billy Jake admits he “was uncomfortable being around lots of people at my job.” But each time he engaged, he grew a bit more at ease. Also, thanks to these frequent interactions with guests, Billy Jake’s speaking and social skills have improved immensely. His “kind and patient” colleagues have also contributed to his success. He loves it that they “encourage [him] to do better every day.”

Billy Jake now looks forward to waking up every morning and getting ready for work. His days are quite busy, arranging the daily breakfast buffet, ensuring diners’ desires and needs are met promptly, interacting with the hotel guests and colleagues, and, once the breakfast service is over, preparing for the next morning’s service. Then comes his favorite part: munching on goodies made by his colleague Kathy in the hotel kitchen!

Serving guests at Baymont Inn and Suites has increased his self-esteem and has given his life new meaning. In his words, “I feel like this job came along at the perfect time. It is working out wonderfully for me, and I am so grateful to my job coach [for helping] me find it.” Clearly a determined young man, Billy Jake now encourages other job-seekers with disabilities “to pick something they want to do and give it a try. You never know what is possible for you unless you try. If it does not work out, try something else. Never give up!”

Over the last six months, Baymont Inn & Suites has taken steps to make sure the Baymont franchises and the larger community is aware of their interest in hiring people with I/DD. They, like The Arc@Work, understand the positive contributions individuals with I/DD like Billy Jake make, not just in the workforce, but in society as well.