For more than a decade, hundreds of disabled students locked up in a large Georgia jail have not been getting the special education services they’re entitled to under federal law, but that may soon start to change.
As a result of the settlement, announced by the children’s attorneys Monday, the school district will begin to put together a system for identifying, evaluating and serving the special education students in the DeKalb County Jail, one of the largest detention facilities in the country. The detainees affected by the agreement are between the ages of 17 and 22.
The lawsuit, filed last year, did not allege any problems with regular educational services in the jail, which serves several counties in metro Atlanta. But the plaintiffs’ lawyers cite a Department of Justice report that indicated jail inmates were more than four times as likely to report having a disability as the general population.
Detained youth are disproportionately Black and frequently victims of the “school to prison pipeline,” according to a news release announcing the settlement. In Georgia, 32% of residents are Black, while Black people represent 51% of the jail population and 60% of the prison population.
Georgia is also one of the only remaining states that considers all 17-year-olds to be adults in the eyes of the law (Texas and Wisconsin are only others). In the other 47 states, 17-year-olds are mostly treated as juveniles – those who are detained or incarcerated are held in juvenile facilities with more clear obligations to deliver educational services.
In response to an inquiry by The Imprint, Christina Wilson-Remlin, lead counsel at Children’s Rights, said the DeKalb County School system maintained that it was willing to serve the special education students but couldn’t do so because the sheriff “took the position that she was not obligated” to cooperate and asked to have her dismissed from the suit. “That motion to dismiss was denied by Judge [Thomas W.] Thrash Jr. earlier this year, finding that she was, at the very least, responsible for cooperating in the providing of services to these students at the jail.”
Wilson-Remlin said the court would appoint a monitor to keep tabs on implementing the special education services.
At least some services are already being provided, but only to some of the originally named plaintiffs, not those added to the case after it was certified as a class-action lawsuit.
A federal judge has granted preliminary approval for a negotiated settlement under which the DeKalb County School District and its superintendent will deliver special education services to eligible students in the DeKalb County Jail.
“Providing education to incarcerated students with disabilities is not only legally required, it is the best thing for society,” Remlin said, adding that research shows that when incarcerated people participate in any kind of education, their chances of returning to detention may drop by as much as 43%. “When we educate young people, we tell them we are still invested in their future, that their best days are yet to come.”