ALABAMA (WHNT) — A U.S. Department of Justice investigation (DOJ) found that Alabama is discriminating against students with disabilities who are in the state foster care system.

Now, a group of attorneys is suing Alabama’s Department of Human Resources (DHR) and Department of Education, citing those practices.

The DOJ’s investigation released last October, found that students in specialized treatment centers were not evaluated, that policies actually hindered their development and that discipline practices in the centers further traumatized some students.

Caleb Cunningham, a lawyer involved in the suit, said these practices could have impacted as many as 5,000 current and former students. The DOJ said in 2020, there were about 900 children who’d been transferred by DHR into these facilities. The lawsuits filed Thursday said the state is not only violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, but that state officials have known for years about the problems, and have not addressed them.

Cunningham said they filed six lawsuits on behalf of students.

Birmingham Attorneys Tommy James of Tommy James Law and Jeremy Knowles of Morris Haynes, and Pensacola Attorney Caleb Cunningham of Levin Papantonio Rafferty, represent the plaintiffs.

“The DOJ reported this in October of last year and even at that time the state was aware of their failure, were aware they were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and as far as we can tell have made no efforts to rectify this or to stop failing to educate these children,” Cunningham told News 19 Friday. “They’re being warehoused in rooms, multiple grades are being given a coloring book for their education time. I think this is made even more heinous and disgusting that this is being done by for-profit companies, that the state is using your tax dollars and my tax dollars to fund”

The lawsuit alleges the state is failing to educate disabled foster children. The attorneys estimate there are five companies, and a dozen facilities contracting with Alabama.

The DOJ found unequal education opportunities for students in residential care facilities and the investigation found the vast majority could be served in more integrated school settings.

The DOJ’s investigation reported that the state doesn’t keep current records of students’ academic progress, does not require the facility operators to evaluate students and does not appear to have taken steps to address shortcomings.

“The Department’s experts concluded that several policies and practices of the STCs actually hinder students’ success in reaching individual goals to exit the program and transition back to general education settings,” the DOJ reported. “These include zero tolerance policies (implemented through disciplinary systems that wipe out the benefits earned through prior good behavior based on a single lapse) and token economy systems.

“In some institutions, there is mandatory manual labor as a substitute for classes like vocational education or physical education. The practices that we observed in the facilities create obstacles to trauma resolution and normal childhood development; indeed, they often further traumatize the children subjected to them.”

Cunningham said the students come from difficult home environments, and that’s why DHR got involved. But, he said, they don’t do nearly enough for students in their custody.

“These are residential or lockdown facilities, these are not free to go home, this is their home.,” he said. “And they’re isolated from everyone else. These children, several of these children, if not all of them, would have been able to go to a general population education, a normal public school. They didn’t even evaluate them, the state didn’t evaluate them to see if they could be given, or to what degree they could be given a general education. And so these children were educationally stunted as well as emotionally stunted by other things that happen at these facilities.”

News 19 contacted Alabama’s Department of Human Resources and Department of Education for comment. They have not yet responded.