“School,” one student said, “is like prison where I am in the weird class.”
This isn’t really a black history fact. It‘s more like a modern-day fact with roots that go back to the Jim Crow era.
GNETS is short for Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support but support is not a word that I find fitting for this program. Earlier this week, I came across an article, “Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special Education System,” which detailed how the GNETS program separates children by disability and race. As I read on, it became apparent to me that GNETS is an entirely separate school system in itself, that turns the classroom into a prison for black youth, disproportionately, black boys.
According to Bestcounciling degrees.net, “Psycho-education is a form of education that is specifically offered to individuals who are suffering from any one of several distinct mental health conditions impairing their ability to lead their lives. The ideal aim of the psychoeducational approach is to give both the individuals who suffer from psychological conditions and their families a stronger base of knowledge for knowing on ways to cope and thrive in spite of the condition.” These programs exist by way of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA.
IDEA was introduced in 1975 and first came into being on October 30, 1990, when the “Education of All Handicapped Children Act” was renamed “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. According to Beth Ferri, a disability scholar at Syracuse University, IDEA provided a kind of loophole to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools. “Before the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was enacted in 1975, U.S. public schools accommodated only 1 out of 5 children with disabilities. Until that time, many states had laws that explicitly excluded children with certain types of disabilities from attending public school, including children who were blind, deaf, and children labeled “emotionally disturbed” or “mentally retarded.” (Wikipedia)
IDEA sounds nice, but it became a double-edged sword. While it may have tackled the issue of allowing children with disabilities to be integrated into the public school system, it was also a subtle response to Brown vs. Board of Education. Schools that did not want to integrate could do so by re-labeling blacks disabled and pushing them out. Now racial segregation continued “under the guise of ‘disability.” Disabled, poverty-stricken, and feeble-minded are just a few code words used throughout history in the America‘s that were often references to African Americans. Instead of blatant racism or racial epithets, people could just say things like “ghetto,” or “inner-city,” when referring to black people.
“Data obtained through records requests reveal that the percentage of students in the GNETS program who are black boys is double that of the public schools in the state. Most of the students in GNETS are classified as having an “emotional and behavioral disorder,” a vague label that does not correspond to any particular medical diagnosis. A teacher who worked for five years at a GNETS program called Coastal Academy, in Brunswick, told me, “We always had a sprinkling of middle-class white kids, maybe two or three, but they didn’t stay long. Everyone made sure they got out. It was the black students who were trapped there. They came in first grade and never left.”
An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that Georgia’s public schools assign a vastly disproportionate number of African American students to psychoeducational programs, segregating them not just by disability but also by race. In such instances, disability has become synonymous with race. Black children in these programs are restrained using dog leashes, experimented on, and locked in rooms like prisons, with bars over the windows. In one such room, a 14-year-old boy hanged himself.
“At a school in Cordele, students with behavioral disorders must use segregated restrooms. They have separate lunch periods. They have to enter through a special door and, unlike their peers without disabilities, pass through a metal detector.” In Rome, students in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support program aren’t allowed to engage with other students – or even leave the basement.”
“As a black kid, you keep getting in trouble,” said Craig Goodmark, a lawyer with Atlanta Legal Aid who represents families of disabled children. “You get in trouble, there are no mental health services. The only mental health services are in the GNETS. That sort of combines to create a reality.”
Seven-year-old David got into trouble as soon as his mother enrolled him in school after moving to Cobb County last spring. He received out-of-school suspensions for 10 of his first 17 days, then was suspended another nine days in the first two weeks of the fall semester. His offenses, according to school documents, included “physical violence without harm,” “class disruption” and “insubordination.”
“Basically,” his mother said, “he was set up for failure.”
“The longest restraint lasted 15 minutes, after David screamed, threw items at other students, toppled desks and slapped at teachers. To keep David from biting him, a school report said, a teacher pushed his fist into the child’s mouth and held it there for several minutes. David told Tonyi he gagged and almost vomited. The school district later said the teacher appropriately controlled David’s “disruptive and assaultive behavior.”
Through such programs as GNETS, Georgia illegally segregates thousands of students with behavioral or psychiatric disorders, often in schools that are dirty, in poor repair and, in some cases, served as blacks-only facilities before court-ordered integration, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Fifty-four percent of students in Georgia’s psycho-educational programs are African American, compared to 37 percent in all public schools statewide, the Journal-Constitution found. In half of the 24 programs, black enrollment exceeds 60 percent. In one, nine of every 10 students are African American.
Be sure to check out other Black History Facts by visiting the Black History Fun Fact Friday page!