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Advocates Say Schools in Juvenile Detention Facilities are Failing Kids

Left to Right: Teacher Lia Venchi, David Domenici of the See Forever Foundation, and David Sapp of the ACLU

CINCINNATI - Learning can be difficult under the best of circumstances. But for those young people inside the nation’s youth detention centers, the barriers to learning can be enormous indeed.

This was just one of the messages that came out of a panel discussion at a conference in Cincinnati today sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, the first such large-scale meeting of the child advocacy organization in a decade.

The panel, Meeting the Educational Needs of Children in the Juvenile Justice System: Challenges and Opportunities, concentrated on highlighting problems and introducing ideas for reforming detention center school systems.

Panelists, including  David Sapp of  the American Civil Liberties Union, Lia Venchi, a teacher at a school for youth in detention and David Domenici, a member of the See Forever Foundation, said most of the reforms implemented in schools within juvenile justice facilities have been forced as a result of litigation or administrative complaints, making public attention the biggest force for change in what are usually highly secretive environments.

The children who attend school in juvenile justice detention facilities have much higher needs than those in the general population, the panelists said. These needs include disproportionately higher rates of learning disabilities, mental health disorders, and lower reading and math proficiencies. They are also disproportionately made up of African-American, Hispanic and other minority youth, panelists said.

Most schools within juvenile justice centers are ill equipped to deal with these high-needs students, a challenge that is often made even harder by the presence of high security measures, said David Sapp, an ACLU attorney based in Los Angeles. Worse, they are often staffed with unmotivated teachers who lack administrative oversight, panelists said.

Audience members lining up to ask questions after the panel discussion

Sapp outlined four main challenges to providing a quality education to juveniles in detention:

  • Security. Security measures often determine the level of enrichment and academic programming juveniles receive. “Even just getting students to and from class on time can sometimes be a barrier in this setting,” Sapp said.
  • The number of agencies involved. Detention facilities can often be run by one agency and have their educational services run by another. This creates “a crazy network” of administrative oversight, Sapp said, and the lack of communication between agencies can become the biggest barrier to an effective education program.
  • The high rates of special needs and mental health needs for students in the system. It’s hard to address these needs adequately given high security, lack of inter-agency communication and poor instructor quality.
  • Lack of public awareness or will. “These are kids that a lot of people would rather forget about,” Sapp said. It becomes a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” especially most people will never actually get to enter a detention facility and learn about the reality of its conditions, he said.

Calling public attention to the conditions inside facilities is especially important because many of them are out of the public eye and are very good at keeping information private, Sapp said.

“If you’re on in the inside or know someone who is, be willing to talk about what you’ve seen,” Sapp said. “Call a reporter. And say, hey, I was in this facility and you will not believe what I saw.”

Photos courtesy of Kaukab Jhumra Smith.

Child Advocates Prepare to Rally in Cincinnati

Chaplain Daniel Rodriguez, a member of the New York Child Action Team, is ready for #CDFcon2012

CINCINNATI - Marian Wright Edelman sees this as a “do or die” moment for American democracy.

The first black woman to join the Mississippi bar, Edelman led the NAACP’s legal defense fund in Jackson in the 1960s. She’s seen her share of social injustice. But rising incarceration, poverty and social disparity in the United States is increasingly harming children and poor people, she says – the country’s most vulnerable groups -- while special interests and money control the political system.

It’s time for citizens to roll up their sleeves, she says.

Starting Sunday, about 3,000 researchers, educators, lawyers, community leaders and young people from around the country will congregate for four days in Cincinnati for the first conference in nine years organized by Edelman and the advocacy organization she founded in 1973, the Children’s Defense Fund. Edelman and her staff have spent the last year planning the gathering, with the hope of galvanizing grassroots action when participants return to their communities.

“This is not a problem-wallowing or hand-wringing conference. It is a strategic, problem-solving conference,” Edelman said in a video inviting people to attend. “It is a conference for those who will stay the course until our children are set on a trajectory toward a hopeful future and are rescued from the pervasive poverty and illiteracy, racial disparities and incarceration that is destroying their futures. It is a conference for sharing and learning about effective community-building models, and steps you can take to implement them in your community, and your schools and congregations, and your cities and states.”

Half the participants will be young people aged 18 to 30, handpicked for their engagement in their communities, their commitment to leadership and social change, and for their diverse perspectives, said Wendy Shenefelt, head of CDF’s national youth leadership and development outreach. They’ll follow a special training track in nonviolent direct action, voter empowerment and community organizing skills, and attend daily wrap-up sessions to discuss what they have learned. In some sessions, youth will meet with civil-rights-era icons to directly learn strategies to implement change, Shenefelt said.

“We’ve tried to invite people of different viewpoints,” Shenefelt said, “We look for people who are already out there doing amazing work and who are seen as leaders in the young advocate world, but then we also look for young people who have gone through challenges, challenges that would have knocked anyone else off their feet but they have worked through them: children of incarcerated parents, young parents, teen parents, who have different opinions of how to fix the problem as well as what the problem really is.”

Youth Today and JJIE.org will be covering the conference with photos, video and stories on Twitter, Facebook  and on this home page. Follow us @youthtoday or @JJIEga or search for tweets from the conference with the hashtag “CDFcon2012.”

Speakers  include poet Maya Angelou, who will deliver the keynote, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who will present a video keynote on the economic importance of a quality early childhood education, and lawyer Bryan Stevenson of the Montgomery-Ala.,-based Equal Justice Initiative, who successfully argued the case against sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without parole before the U.S. Supreme Court this spring.

The Children’s Defense Fund, on Twitter as @childdefender, is already anticipating a lot of Twitter activity by attendees.

“Dear Twitter: Get ready for next week. We're gonna blow you up...,” it tweeted on Thursday.

Photo from @CDFNewYork.