The Atlantic

The Separate, Unequal Education of Students With Special Needs

Georgia’s system to teach children with disabilities falls vastly short of its promise.
Source: Jesse Pratt Lopez

ATLANTA—Brent Agnew remembers feeling a sense of relief when he left the meeting called to discuss his 6-year-old son Caleb’s anxiety attacks.

As he and his wife, Jennifer, walked into the parking lot outside the E. E. Butler Center in Gainesville, Georgia, that day in 2006, the two could picture a different future for Caleb.

At the meeting, a special-education teacher had recommended taking the boy out of Martin Elementary School, in a town 10 miles southwest of Gainesville, and placing him in Georgia’s Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS), a statewide system for children with “emotional and behavioral disorders.”

Agnew, who had worked as an elementary- and middle-school teacher in the same county for six years, trusted that this would be the best way to manage his son’s angry outbursts, which included knocking over chairs and desks, and get him back on track in his class work. Both parents figured Caleb would return to his neighborhood elementary school before too long.

“We saw it as a scaffolding until things got better—a short-term, possible solution,” Agnew recalled.

Ten years later, the couple sat across a wooden table from Caleb, now 16, a high-school dropout and, as of September, a survivor of a suicide attempt.

Not only did Caleb never return to his local school, but he learned little throughout his elementary-, middle- and high-school years—which included hundreds of hours struggling through computer lessons in math, science, and social studies.

His paltry education was much like that of dozens of other children in the GNETS system whose experiences this reporter researched. Aspects of Caleb’s time in GNETS were echoed by the families interviewed: a sense that they could do nothing to get their children back into local schools once they were in the system and a hopelessness in the face of violence and chaos in the classrooms. Most, but not all, reported an absence of the sort of therapeutic benefit implied by the program’s name.

* * *

There are children like Caleb and his GNETS classmates all over the country—with diagnoses including ADHD, bipolar disorder, and, increasingly, autism. They are often placed in separate classrooms within public schools and spend large numbers of hours on computers using technology that is not aligned with their specific needs. Georgia has had an entirely separate and separately

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