Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Since 1972, the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law has advocated for the civil rights, full inclusion, and equality of adults and children with mental disabilities. The Bazelon Center was pivotal in expanding the civil rights movement to include fighting discrimination against, and segregation of, people with mental disabilities. Today, the Center accomplishes its goals through a unique combination of litigation, public policy advocacy, coalition building and leadership, public education, media outreach, and technical assistance—a comprehensive approach that ensures the largest possible impact.

The Bazelon Center uses cutting-edge litigation to effect progressive systemic change and impact public policy. We secured early legal precedents creating basic civil rights for people with mental disabilities—including the rights to a public education, receive services in community based settings instead of institutions, and make decisions about one’s own care. The Center was instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 and played a key role in the historic case of Olmstead v. L.C. (1999), in which the Supreme Court found that needless segregation of people with psychiatric disabilities violates the ADA. Over the last decade, the Bazelon Center has worked to expand the reach of Olmstead to address not only unnecessary institutionalization in public facilities (e.g., psychiatric and criminal justice), but also to remedy segregation in nursing homes, board and care homes, schools and classrooms, sheltered workshops, and other day services. Our Olmstead work has created legal precedents defining a national model of comprehensive community-based disability systems and led to settlement agreements providing thousands of individuals with opportunities to move out of segregated, dead-end facilities and to live full lives in their communities.

THE CASE: The Bazelon Center has long worked to ensure that children with mental health disabilities have the same educational opportunities as their non-disabled peers. As part of this advocacy, and using funding from the Barbara McDowell and Gerald S. Hartman Foundation, the Bazelon Center has filed a case challenging Georgia's system of segregated educational centers, known collectively as the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Services, or GNETS. The Bazelon Center and its co-counsel represent three current and former GNETS students as well as a class of students with disabilities now in GNETS or at serious risk of being placed in GNETS. Other plaintiffs include the Georgia Advocacy Office and The Arc of the United States. The plaintiffs allege that Georgia’s use of the GNETS system violates the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Equal Protection Clause by denying equal educational opportunity to children with disability-related behavioral needs and by needlessly segregating them in separate and inferior classrooms and schools. The defendants include the Georgia Board of Education, Department of Education, Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, Department of Community Health, and several individuals in their official capacities.

Approximately 5,200 students with disabilities are in the GNETS system. In a series of investigative articles published last year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that GNETS operates 53 segregated “centers,” where only children with disabilities are enrolled, as well as satellite classrooms, also segregated by disability, attached to numerous neighborhood schools. GNETS students are disproportionately children of color – 51 percent versus 37 percent in all public schools statewide. In some areas, the percentage of African-American students in GNETS exceeds 60 percent, and in one program, almost 9 out of every 10 students are African American. See Judd, A. “Georgia ‘psychoeducational’ students segregated by disability, race,” The Atlanta Journal Constitution (April 28, 2016) (retrieved from http://specials.myajc.com/psychoeducation/?ecmp=AJC_internallink_4292016_AJCtoMyAJC_p sycho_ed_gwinnett.)

The lawsuit seeks an injunction requiring Georgia to provide students with disability-related behavioral needs appropriate services in neighborhood schools alongside their non-disabled peers. Unless these concerns are resolved, students segregated in GNETS will continue to fall further behind in school, be less likely to graduate, and be more likely to enter the criminal justice system.

Contact: 
Ira Burnim, Legal Director, irab@bazelon.org, 202-467-5730 ext. 1320 
Mark Murphy, Managing Attorney, markm@bazelon.org, 202-467-5730 ext. 1323 
Maura Klugman, Staff Attorney, maurak@bazelon.org, 202-467-5730 ext. 1331