The education of incarcerated youth is a major problem facing the nation. A report released last year by the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) stated that, “The juvenile justice education programs that serve hundreds of thousands of students are characterized by low expectations, inadequate supports to address student needs, and ineffective instruction and technology.”
According to Steve Suitts, Vice-President of the SEF, “Students come out of the juvenile justice system in worse shape than when they entered.”
When one considers that approximately 68 percent of incarcerated youth are children of color, with 41 percent of these being identified as African-American, this is particularly alarming. Even more startling, according to the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), 75 percent of juveniles incarcerated in the state of Georgia are Black.
Lack of accountability and consistency is one reason juvenile schools are failing students. There is no national uniform system for educating incarcerated youth. Sixteen states have separate departments of juvenile justice that handle the education of youth in custody. Eleven states assign the responsibility for juvenile education to social services departments or agencies. State departments of education control the juvenile schools in seventeen other states. And for the remaining six states, a confined youth’s education is squarely the responsibility of the corrections department.
In addition, the efforts of multiple stakeholders in each of these states must be coordinated to effectively meet the educational needs of the juveniles. Juvenile courts, state education agencies, local school districts, social services agencies, health professionals, parents, and attorneys all play an important role in determining the care, custody and education of confined youth.
Unfortunately, lack of uniformity and clear accountability leads to a lack of prioritizing and systematic inadequacies. Katherine Dunn, program officer at the SEF, stated, “A lot of these youth are in facilities that make it clear that education is not a priority.”
David Domenici, co-founder and former principal of Maya Angelou Academy in the New Beginnings Youth Development near Washington D.C., agrees with Dunn and goes on to observe that many of these juvenile facilities are “off the accountability grid.” And that, “People view these kids as throwaway kids so they don’t prioritize education.” He goes on to say that as a result, “Schools in youth correctional settings are undervalued and underperform.”
This underperformance is evident in the data collected and reported by the Southern Education Foundation in 2014. To begin with, only 9 percent of students aged 16-21 earned a GED or high school diploma while confined. Also, less than half of all high school age students enrolled for 90 days or more in juvenile justice schools nationwide completed one or more credits. The picture is even grimmer once juveniles leave the system, with two-thirds reported as dropping out.
Michelle Newell, a senior policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund, states very clearly why this is a major issue.
“Educational success in a locked facility is directly connected and correlated to whether a young person can turn their life around.”
If the goal of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate and prevent recidivism, than education plays a key role in accomplishing this objective.
Research conducted by Dr. Thomas G. Bloomberg, a leading expert on education in juvenile justice systems, found this to be exactly the case. According to a 2012 study by Bloomberg, youth who demonstrated above average academic achievement while incarcerated, were significantly more likely to return to school upon their release. And for those that returned to school, they were significantly less likely to be rearrested within 12 to 24 months.
Even more encouraging, “This research found that above-average academic achievement during incarceration made the largest difference for Black males in decreasing the likelihood of delinquency.”
The goal of every state and any entity responsible for the education of youth (and especially incarcerated youth), should be to ensure access to a high quality education for every child.
For the confined youth, this access is crucial for enabling them to turn their life around.
While the failures of the system have been numerous, according to the SEF there are several steps that can and should be taken to restructure a system that is disproportionately affecting minority children.
First, all juvenile schools should focus on recruitment and professional development of highly qualified teachers. Secondly, there should be on-going academic monitoring of confined youth upon entering and exiting the system. Third, each student should be given an individualized educational plan. Fourth, there should be a useful data collection, retrieval and monitoring system in effect. Finally, schools should be led by strong, certified principals providing a rigorous, technology-rich curriculum.