Controversial Psychoeducational Schools Persist in Georgia

(Photo: Pexels, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pexels, Creative Commons)

Six years ago, Georgia's state Board of Education adopted a series of regulations restricting the ways that Georgie schools manage some of their most challenging students — those with behavioral disorders. The state has largely ignored these regulations, however.

An investigation launched by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) found that many of the practices banned by the Board have continued uninterrupted. Namely, the state's controversial network of "psychoeducational" schools has persisted.

After the death of Jonathan King, a student in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS) who committed suicide, state regulators stepped in to ban many of the practices used by the unique school network.

According to Alan Judd, a journalist for AJC, King hanged himself in a seclusion room using a piece of rope a staff member had fastened him with to hold up his drooping pants. The room resembled a jail cell: a locked metal door, graffiti-marred walls, no bathroom, and no windows. State regulators subsequently banned seclusions, mechanical restraints such as straps and cuffs, and sedatives, all of which were used by school authorities.

Despite the bans, however, the AJC uncovered that schools in the GNETS network are still employing these methods. In all, there are 24 GNETS programs in Georgia with fewer than 3,400 students. In the 2015 school year, the programs reported more than 5,000 restraints – about 158 for every 100 students. By contrast, at the 2,300 other public schools in Georgia, one-fifth as many total restraints took place, which amounted to 7 for every 100 students.

Authorities recognize that educators and supervisors dealing with the most challenging students, who are often plagued by mental illnesses, will be forced to use restraining techniques more often. Often, social situations in these schools become highly chaotic; physical restraint is allowed only after other behavioral interventions have failed. Still, critics worry that the use of these methods may be disproportionate to the need for them.

Professor Emeritus Frederick Hickling in Kingstown, Jamaica made his critiques of psychoeducation clear in an interview with The Gleaner. "My opinion is that our teachers have excellent culturally based skills to be able to predict the direction that a child should be developed. I don't think we are using the skills and knowledge of our teachers effectively," he said. Additionally, he recommended that educators be wary of only testing low-performing students for classification in special education.

"If they are going to be used for large-scale programs, they should be used for all children, not restricted to the worst-performing children. Many children who earn above 50 per cent may have significant psychoeducational problems that are in major need of treatment," Hickling said.

The professor also accused the psychiatric assessments used to determine the need for psychoeducation as discriminatory. The investigatory report published by AJC concerning schools in Georgia revealed that most students enrolled in the state's GNETS schools are young black males. Thus, there are racial implications to the continued existence of these special educational institutions and the controversial practices employed within them.

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