OP-ED: Do Poor Reading Skills Increase Risk of Juvenile Justice System Involvement?

John LashI have always taken reading and writing for granted. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read, and I think I wrote my first story when I was five or six years old. I never thought much about it until I got to prison. It didn’t take long to figure out that a lot of the men there couldn’t read or write very well. Some couldn’t read at all.

Over time I went from helping guys write letters to their families or complaints to the authorities to working in school. I taught elementary and high school material several years, including fundamental reading. It is commonly known that prisoners have very low literacy rates, with some 70 percent reading at or below a fourth grade level. In the juvenile system 85 percent are functionally illiterate.

As a teacher I discovered that most of the men in class suffered from disabilities. Many had dyslexia, others had problems paying attention or absorbing information, some had mental health issues or behavioral problems that interefered with their ability to study and many had suffered head trauma. Almost all of them had suffered terribly in school, often accused of laziness or labeled as stupid.

It is common to link poor performance in school to increased risk of criminal activity, and the two are definitely correlated. But does poor reading (or other poor academics) actually lead to kids being involved with the system? Is it simply that they don’t engage in mainstream activities, or that as adults they are unable to find sufficiently sustainable work? These can explain part of the problem, but there is another aspect that is often overlooked.

Colorlines, a news site published by the racial justice advocacy organization Race Forward, recently published the latest installments of their ongoing series focused on inequity. Race, Disability and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and the related Infographic: From Disability to Criminality, explore the links between certain diagnoses and the increased use of policies and disciplinary actions that can contribute to negative outcomes.

In the realm of physical disabilities (such as vision or hearing impairment) there is an even distribution among races. In diagnosing other less tangible disabilities, however, there is more room for subjectivity and unconscious bias.

“‘[E]motional and behavioral disturbance’ or ‘specific learning disabilities,’ tend not to come until students arrive in the classroom,” the report says. “These so-called soft disabilities are catchalls for broad classes of learning challenges and anti-social behaviors, and the assessment and labeling process for them is open to much more subjectivity. Perhaps not surprisingly, they have come to be defined by deep racial disparities.”

White kids are more likely to be labeled as autistic, while black students are much more likely to be labeled with “specific learning disability”. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that “black students were twice as likely as Latinos, four times as likely as Asians and 1.4 times as likely as whites to receive … education services for emotional disturbance.” Guess which one is more likely to get a student suspended or even arrested? It is the kids labeled with a disability that includes an “inability to learn which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors” and is linked to antisocial and depressive behavior as well as poor relationships with teachers and other kids.

Why the racial bias exists is up for debate. In part it is probably a mix of unconscious prejudice and dehumanization and intentional opposition to integration. It has historically been used in Southern states to hide segregation.

Living with this kind of designation is bad news, since it pushes the kid farther down the pipeline. They are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled. God help them if they are labeled with a disability and are black. Their chance of being suspended in a given year rises to 25 percent. White kids and Asians similarly labeled suffer suspension at 12 and 10 percent respectively.

Punishments, arrests, dropping out and further involvement increase dramatically for these kids, with the result that they are entering the juvenile justice system at five times the rate of other kids. So, the problem is more complex than might be assumed at first. It is not that the kids are necessarily dysfunctional, or at least any more dysfunctional than others, but instead that the system fails them in two ways.

Passively, the system fails them by not providing appropriate services and support. There are viable strategies for addressing disabilities that exist, and for identifying overuse of diagnosis as well. Actively the system is failing them by increasing the use of discipline and law enforcement involvement, neither of which is going to increase the kids’ chances of a successful academic career.

What’s clear is that the way things are now isn’t working, and it’s time to stop blaming the kids and start implementing programs that address these complex issues.