From Detention to Graduation: Examining Role of Education in U.S. Juvenile Justice System

At 7 a.m., teenagers are scurrying to dress and head to class. There are no parents or older siblings nearby to push them out of bed and out the door. And the commute isn’t long — just a short walk from prison bed to classroom.

But these young men at the MacLaren Juvenile Detention Facility in Woodburn, Oregon, are going someplace — and that’s a start, state educators and justice officials say.

The students meander from four different buildings, depending on their status — some as young as 15 and others who were sentenced as adults but placed in juvenile facilities — down long corridors to a central school.

“MacLaren is a regular school, and if you were to walk in you’d think you’re in a high school hallway,” said Deborah Martin, senior policy advisor for community services at the Oregon Youth Authority.

The students get the usual array of math, English and science. But MacLaren and most of Oregon’s other youth detention facilities also offer the chance to learn a vocation. An advanced auto mechanics class ties to a partnership with a local community college. Classes teach latticework and woodworking. Some students learn wildlife preservation and take advanced classes in fighting wildfires common to the Pacific Northwest.

The most advanced students, usually in their late teens or early 20s who have spent years in the facility and are ready to transition into the public sector, are allowed to work with local firefighters out in the fields.

“As a state, we’ve made a conscious decision that we can’t just give them a high school education, but give them a vocation and a chance to succeed in the work world,” Martin said. “For most of these kids, something wasn’t quite right about their life — that’s why they came to us. We want to help them get back on track.”

Oregon is considered at the forefront of efforts to improve the transition from juvenile detention back to public schools or into the workforce, according to education and juvenile justice experts.

In addition to schoolwork, the state has set up a system in which each teenager entering the juvenile justice system is assigned a parole officer who will stick with them until they exit the system.

The officers serve as case managers, arranging counseling, mental and substance abuse treatment if needed and, working with the teens, teachers and their families, devise an education and support plan as soon as they enter the system.

Transition officers

Additionally, Oregon provides some juveniles with transitional parole officers whose job is helping the teens and young adults in their first reentry months. What began as a pilot program four years ago with a single officer has developed into a statewide assistance program that has put about 100 teens into the workforce and helped many more return to the classroom.

Jim Kramer, chief of parole and probation for the Oregon Youth Authority, said transition officers stay in specific regions so they know about job opportunities and can build contacts in local school systems. They mostly support youth 17 and older.

All students leaving detention facilities in the state must be admitted into local schools. But “let’s face it, in some of these schools our students are going back to places in class with some of their victims, so there is some pushback,” Kramer said. “Our transition POs work to soften that landing and work with the school and student to come up with a transition plan.”

National trend to reduce recidivism

Oregon’s attempt to ease the transition from lockdown to society is part of a larger national trend that experts say is tied to a steep drop in juvenile crime and recidivism.

In the past two decades, the population of young people held in juvenile facilities or other forms of detention has been cut in half nationwide, according to a study by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focusing solely on youth and their families.

The figures are encouraging, juvenile justice experts say, and show that more states are using data and lessons learned from comprehensive studies (such as one from the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice in 2016) as blueprints for diversion and treatment programs that keep teens in school and ultimately make them far less likely to reoffend.

But the success of diversion programs has created a new reality for educators and justice professionals: Those who are locked up now are sometimes more hardened, more difficult to reach and present a challenge to educate and treat before and after they reenter society.

“What the data shows is that as incarceration rates have gone down, the population still incarcerated are higher risk and higher need, and recidivism rates still tend to be pretty high because it’s a challenging group to work with,” said Josh Weber, program director for the Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York City.

“It requires a more nuanced reading of data and a more sophisticated understanding of risk placement and how to tailor education programs to the individual,” Weber said. “The juvenile field has done a good job, much better than the adult system, of keeping kids from coming back into the system. But I think we’re still struggling with developing enough programs for mental health and substance abuse.”

Recidivism and dropping out of school  

Educating teens held in facilities is crucial to helping them return to the classroom when they are released, experts said. But that’s not always easy, in large part because of circumstances students can’t control. Some teens are in locked facilities for only a few days or weeks, making it difficult for teachers to learn the best ways to help them learn. Nearly all students can be pulled from classes for court appearances or other reasons related to their legal issues.

“It used to be that 30 days before release planning programs would begin. Now, from the moment they are placed in facilities, we see families involved, treatment planning with staff, making sure kids get re-enrolled in school as soon as they are released.”

In all, two-thirds of teens released from juvenile facilities never return to school and “find themselves far behind their peers,” according to a study by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit focusing on disparities in the justice system — adult and juvenile.

“A huge problem, and I’m not sure it’s talked about enough, is the lack of transfer of academic credits when students go from a facility back into a local school system,” said Kate Burdick, a staff attorney for the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. “When they are going to school in a facility, they think they are getting credit, and they should be. But when they go back to their old school — or sometimes it’s even worse because they are forced to a new school away from where they live — they come to realize the school districts won’t accept those credits.”

That leads to frustration for the students and increases dropout rates, Burdick said.

National guidelines and action plans

Several states and local jurisdictions have implemented new rules to increase the chances that students graduate when leaving detention facilities. For example, New York — pushed into action by a lawsuit and consent decree — has created “credit equivalency charts” that provide uniform standards for integrating students back into the classroom. That includes efforts to make sure students are enrolled in schools in the same district in which they and their family live, increasing the odds they stay in school.

Virginia and Washington state have introduced legislation that speeds up the time between students leaving detention and being enrolled in a local school system.

The federal government has also created guidelines in recent years, aimed at smoothing the transition from detention to graduation. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released guidelines for disciplining students, part of an effort to keep teens in school and out of the justice system.

The guidelines stressed the need for strong partnerships among mental health agencies, counseling, law enforcement and school systems — designed to help divert students who might be sent to the juvenile justice system into counseling or specialized school programs. But the guidelines also focus on helping schools and students adapt as they leave lockdown facilities and return to public schools.

In  2016, the Department of Education released a “reentry toolkit” that provided tips and resources for local jurisdictions to provide services for students returning to the classroom.

Another program designed to help both adults and juveniles reenter society, the 2015 federal Second Chance Act, overcame efforts by the Trump administration to slash its budget by 30 percent as of press time. On July 14, the House Appropriations Committee agreed to provide full funding for the project at $68 million with support from both parties, according to committee member Scott Taylor, a Republican representing Virginia. The vote is seen as a key step in the budgeting process.

There is still much work ahead, said Weber of the Council of State Governments. States must do a better job gathering and analyzing case data that will help them craft more effective education programs to help teens graduate high school when they leave detention, he said.

“The good news is that the field is more aware of the need for having a more robust reentry program, and the planning starts much earlier,” Weber said. “It used to be that 30 days before release planning programs would begin. Now, from the moment they are placed in facilities, we see families involved, treatment planning with staff, making sure kids get re-enrolled in school as soon as they are released.”

Despite the difficulties, Weber and others said there are several concrete steps jurisdictions can take to improve the chances teens graduate after incarceration. First and foremost is having mental health and substance abuse treatment programs inside the facilities and in the school systems.

“We’re struck by how few states have a dedicated mental health or substance abuse system,” he said. “The default in many instances is to handle those problems as criminal justice issues, and that’s not where they belong.”

Last year several groups focusing on juvenile justice and education issues combined to create a detailed, 10-point blueprint to aid reentry. The study and guidelines, created by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Bar Association Center of Children and the Law, the Juvenile Law Center and others, provides concrete examples and recommendations for states and local jurisdictions to follow.

Still, the success of any program depends on states dedicating money and time to ensure students have the best chance of graduating once they leave detention facilities, said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center.

“There are software programs available, lots of innovative ways to engage students and tailor programs to individual needs,” Levick said. “But there has to be the will to do that.

“What’s always frustrated me is that these kids in locked facilities should have the same exact opportunities as kids on the outside. Yet we don’t hold facilities accountable for delivering the same quality of education. We have to really change that mindset if we want to see better outcomes.”

Trying to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline

The 2014 U.S. Department of Education’s “Guiding Principles A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline” articulates the federal government’s acknowledgement of inequity when it comes to school discipline:

“Nationwide, data collected by our Office for Civil Rights show that youths of color and youths with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspensions and expulsions. For example, data show that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although students who receive special education services represent 12 percent of students in the country, they make up 19 percent of students suspended in school, 20 percent of students receiving out-of-school suspension once ... and 23 percent of students receiving a school-related arrest.”

While the guidelines are nonregulatory, and “the extent to which states and school districts implement the suggestions in this resource guide is a matter for state and local school officials to decide,” it does provide 13 specific action steps designed to reduce suspensions and other out-of-school referrals.

For example:

  • “Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates.” This action item names groups of youth who are often disenfranchised — from those with disabilities to LBGTQ youth and young people of color. Specific goals may include reducing numbers of suspensions and expulsions and law enforcement referrals, and “identifying and connecting at-risk youths to tailored supports, or increasing the availability of quality mental health supports available for students.”
  • “Train all school staff to apply school discipline policies and practices in a fair and equitable manner so as not to disproportionately impact students of color, students with disabilities, or at-risk students.”

“Remove students from the classroom only as a last resort, ensure that alternative settings provide academic instruction, and return students to class as soon as possible.”  

Federal Appeals Court to Hear Birmingham School Pepper Spray Case

A case that alleges chemical spray is overused in Birmingham, Ala., schools is headed to federal appeals court and will probably not re-emerge for at least a year.

Attorneys for the school officials, resource officers and city police officers named as defendants have asked the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to hear two questions. First, if the case go forward as a class action; and second, if they have any official immunity.

If the court decides to hear the questions, no ruling is likely for at least a year, said Ebony Howard, an attorney with the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center.

She is lead attorney representing six youths who say officers on campus sprayed them with a chemical called Freeze+P for minor school-based infractions, including in one case, uncontrollable crying over being bullied.

The SPLC is pursuing class action because of the number of chemical spray incidents at city schools: at least 200 since 2006.

“We haven’t been able to find anywhere that used it in this way and as frequently. We have found that pepper spray has been used for normal adolescent misbehavior,” said Howard. “When it is used in other school systems even one time it’s big news.”

Indeed, a glance at recent news stories turns up several examples of chemical spray reports.

In Rochester, N.Y., a student fight downtown broken up by police using chemical spray has led to students being banned from bus routes that meander downtown. Now they must use routes that go straight to campus, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports.

Topeka High School was put on lockdown after a security guard used chemical spray to break up a fight, the Topeka Capitol-Journal says.

But there is no nationwide count of such incidents in schools.

Matt Simpson, policy strategist at the ACLU in Texas, studies law enforcement in his state’s schools. He said families have contacted his organization about “very few” pepper spray in school incidents, but there’s no way to know how many actually happen.

“There’s virtually no uniformity on use-of-force policies for law enforcement in schools” in Texas he said, adding “there’s definitely not reporting.”

Some Texas school systems, especially larger ones, set up their own law enforcement agencies with a chief of police who reports to the school superintendent. Those agencies, said Simpson, are more likely to set a use-of-force policy tailored for young people and schools.

Other school systems contract with local city or county police, meaning an officer on street duty can be called to a school. Simpson said in those cases, use-of-force rules tend to be functionally the same on campus as on the street.

For the past few years, Texas ACLU has worked on legislation that would limit the use of chemical sprays or stun guns in schools, especially banning their use on the youngest children. Simpson said they will advocate for the same thing next year.

OP-ED: Shameful Treatment of Children in Meridian, Miss. Is Not the Only Example of School-to-Prison Pipeline

Tamar Birckhead newIn recent years, juvenile justice advocates, lawyers, policy-makers, and reformers have increasingly sought to raise awareness of the American phenomenon of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The term refers generally to the process in which substandard public schools fail to provide adequate support and resources for at-risk children and their families, resulting in high drop-out rates and ultimately leading to court-involvement, detention and incarceration.

More specifically, the term refers to the pattern in which students who have committed school-based wrongdoing — whether by pushing another child in the hallway, taking a pencil from a teacher’s desk, or disrupting class — are summarily arrested, charged with violating a criminal offense, and prosecuted in juvenile delinquency court. After a judge finds them delinquent, youth are then placed on probation and court-ordered to comply with a long series of conditions, typically including that they not be suspended (or not be suspended again) from school. In many jurisdictions when a juvenile on probation is suspended — even for a minor infraction at school — the consequences of the violation may include incarceration in a detention center.

schoolppipe_seriesResearch has shown that youth who are disproportionately impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline are likely to be those who are already the most vulnerable: low-income students, children of color, English language learners, youth in foster care, students with disabilities (whether physical, psychological, or developmental), and homeless children. Often such students fall into more than one of these categories.

It is against this background that the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a stunning letter last week summarizing the findings of a comprehensive investigation into the unconstitutional treatment of children in Meridian, Miss. In its press release, the DOJ asserts that the local police, the county juvenile court, and the state agency in charge of the juvenile detention center in Meridian, “help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline whereby children arrested in local schools become entangled in a cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution.”

The letter, authored by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, details a systemic process that begins when the Meridian Police Department automatically arrests all students who are referred to the police by the Meridian Public School District for disciplinary infractions, including dress code violations.

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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.


The police “do not assess the facts or circumstances of the alleged charge, or whether the alleged conduct actually qualifies as an arrestable offense.” Instead, they serve as a “taxi service” from the schools to the juvenile detention center, “routinely” handcuffing and arresting students without custody orders or an independent determination of probable cause. After the student reaches the detention center, an intake officer issues a “temporary” custody order, and then a Lauderdale County Youth Court judge holds a hearing and issues a detention order — again without a probable cause finding. These proceedings also violate federal law requiring that children taken into custody receive detention hearings within 48 hours, as Meridian’s juvenile court hearings — including detention hearings — are held only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

As for the juvenile’s right to counsel, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 with In re Gault, the DOJ found that children in Meridian are “not always” appointed an attorney for detention or adjudication hearings, and that the public defender who is appointed “does not provide children and guardians with meaningful or effective representation.” Following adjudication, the juvenile court places children on probation, requiring them to serve any school suspensions for alleged disciplinary infractions while incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.  In short, the existing due process protections provided by Meridian’s juvenile justice system are both “illusory and inadequate.”

As is typical of districts impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline, the Meridian students most severely affected by these practices are African-American children and children with disabilities. The DOJ letter specifies that while Meridian’s general population is approximately 62 percent black and 36 percent white, student enrollment in the public schools is 86 percent black and 12 percent white. Approximately 13 percent of Meridian’s students are identified as having disabilities, and its students are suspended or expelled at a rate almost seven times the rate for Mississippi schools statewide.

During the course of their eight-month investigation, the Civil Rights Division unsuccessfully sought access to Meridian juvenile court records and an opportunity to speak with its personnel. Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young and county officials refused to allow DOJ to observe court proceedings, interview staff, or review files. They also directed the city to deny DOJ access to the law enforcement records of the children referred by the schools to the Meridian Police Department. Although DOJ seeks “meaningful negotiations” with the involved agencies and believes that a “collaborative approach” to resolving the violations “would be productive,” a federal lawsuit against state, county and local officials will be filed if “expeditious” progress is not made.

This is not the first time that Meridian’s mistreatment of children and teens has drawn the attention of authorities. Several years ago, the town’s juvenile detention center was the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. A settlement was reached in 2010 that ended the detention center’s policy of confining youth in unsanitary cells for 23 hours each day, punishing them with Mace or pepper spray, and locking them in a mechanical “restraint chair.”

Lauderdale County officials agreed to provide meaningful rehabilitative, educational, and recreational programs as well as upgraded mental health screening and adequate medical treatment for those held at the center. They also agreed to consider community-based alternatives to detention. It is unclear whether these reforms were implemented.

In regard to the current allegations against those entrusted to care for and serve the children of Meridian, the media will likely portray them as an anomaly—a situation that is limited to the backwaters of Mississippi and not at all illustrative of the general quality of juvenile justice in the United States. From my perspective, however, while the evidence is indeed shocking, the reality is that the school-to-prison pipeline exists in many—too many—of our nation’s struggling school districts. More stunning, perhaps, is the federal government’s explicit acknowledgement that the phenomenon exists, that the pattern of conduct is unconstitutional, and that it must end.

The Meridian case also differs from incidents such as the “kids for cash” scandal  uncovered several years ago in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, in which juvenile court judges were motivated by financial gain to illegally sentence thousands of children to private juvenile detention centers in a racketeering scheme that netted them millions of dollars. In contrast, the agency personnel and officials in Meridian are unfairly treating children out of “systemic disregard” for their welfare. Meridian police “may subjectively believe that they are acting appropriately” in following established policy, but they have diverted their attention from the larger — and graver — picture. In other words, these violations stem from detachment and impassivity, from a failure to consider each child as an individual. The teachers, administrators, police and judges of Meridian view these young people as all the same, indistinguishable from one another, defined by their alleged infractions, and assumed to be guilty and deserving of incarceration. As a result, thousands of children — mostly African-American, many of whom are disabled — have unnecessarily been arrested, handcuffed, adjudicated as juvenile delinquents, and incarcerated. They have been stigmatized by an insidious “cycle of incarceration.” They have been socialized to believe that they are not worth any more than the next name on the juvenile court docket.

Yes, the “serious and longstanding” violations uncovered in Mississippi are unacceptable and should be condemned. But they are not limited to a single town in the South. The school-to-prison pipeline exists in cities, suburbs and towns all across the United States. It is not only there. It is here.

A Juvenile Justice System in Flux: Updates from John Jay Symposium

NEW YORK – The John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice is holding a two-day conference for journalists on its campus in New York Monday and Tuesday.

JJIE/Youth Today’s John Fleming and Clay Duda are attending the conference and will be reporting some highlights throughout.

While the conference, Kids Behind Bars, Where’s the Justice in America’s Juvenile Justice System?, is primarily meant for journalists, many of the topics will be of interest not only to those in the field, but the general public as well.

Speakers on Monday include: Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law & Policy; Vincent Schiraldi, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Probation; Ricardo Martinez, co-director, Padres & Jovenes Unidos and David Utter, director of policy, the Florida office of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Gail Garinger, a former juvenile court judge, who is now the Child Advocate of Massachusetts’ Office of the Child Advocate, will deliver the keynote address.

The Tow Foundation is sponsoring the conference.

For coverage of Day Two head to our post here.


Panel One:

Mark Soler

In her keynote address Gail Garinger spoke about the now discounted superpredator theory from the 1990s and role of the press in giving life to the myth through screaming headlines and sensational stories. The theory was posited by John DiIulio of Princeton, James Fox of Northeastern and others in the early 1990s.

It was, Garinger said, an unfortunate time that led to changes in laws in most states that resulted in many more juveniles being tried as adults.

The wolf pack of the superpredatory youth, however, never materialized she said, causing the very social scientists who brought up this theory to discount it.

But the highly punitive laws are still on the books in most states. Though change is coming, it is slow.

One big problem, Garinger told the more than 100 journalists and policy-makers assembled, is a disconnect that exists between lawmakers and good law. Garinger mentioned instances when she would urge lawmakers in Massachusetts to consider existing laws before implementing often-counterproductive laws because of press and public pressure.

Garinger spoke a bit from her own experience, telling the audience that she had three kids come into their teenage years within 17 months.

“I can’t believe the stupid things kids do”, she said. Sometimes, she added, they even film themselves on videotape, smoking pot in the basement and so on.

That towering stupidity, she stressed, is just another reason why we need to pay attention to the importance of brain science.

In recent years scientists have determined the human brain does not reach full maturity until well past the teen years.

She added this is one of the key issues of juvenile justice today. Other include coordination of the players involved in kids lives; risk assessment tools including evidence-based practices; diversion; what programs work for special populations; sex offenders; mental health needs; racial disparities; confidentiality of court records and the availability of data.

In response to a question about mentoring, Garinger said if a kid has a meaningful involvement with a caring adult, it could make a world of difference, that one significant person can make a difference, she said.

She also stood up for those seeking more aggregate data on juvenile offenders from state agencies.

Journalists have often battled state departments of juvenile justice for such data. State DJJs often site privacy as a reason for withholding data even when only aggregate data is asked for.

Mark Solar chaired a panel following Garinger’s talk that focused on lessons learned from the superpredator years and the falling crime rates the nation has witnessed in recent years.

David Utter, left, and Ricardo Martinez, right, speaking at the John Jay conference

Ricardo Martinez, the co-director of Padres & Jovenes, spoke about teen stupidity as well.

Authorities, he said, take simple stupid behavior and find a law to fit it. Martinez, who is based in Denver, said the current policies used by many schools, including some in Denver, are part of a factory to create a nation with the highest incarceration of youth on the planet.

All of this starts with discipline in the schools, he said. Existing policies, he said, push the students out of the schools onto the streets and into trouble.

The thought by many school administrators, he said, is to throw out the bad kids so the good kids can learn. But, he said, his organization has yet to find a school that is throwing kids out and doing well academically.

Martinez also spent some time on what he sees as a concerted effort by the system to disenfranchise entire segments of society.

It is no accident, he explained, that zero tolerance has coincided with a change in demographics in the United States. “It is not an accident, it is a question of changing demographics,” he said.

David Utter, of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), spoke of the important role the media can play in exposing problems in the system. He referred to reports that have been done by Human Rights Watch and the SPLC in past years documenting abuses in youth detention centers that eventually got the notice of public and the Justice Department, in part, because of the work of the media.

Utter also spoke about racial disparity in the juvenile and adult correctional systems. It is across the board, Utter said, in every facility minority kids are overrepresented and the deeper you get into the system the more disparity you see.

Conference attendees, including JJIE editor John Fleming, center

Mark Soler closed by asking all the attendees to go visit the youth detention center in their area and meet the kids and “you will see that most of them have dark skin.

Vincent Schiraldi, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Probation, talked about the history of juvenile incarceration, saying that it has from the beginning been a disaster.

We should ask what’s wrong with the model we are using, he said.

He talked about New York City’s effort to take its incarcerated youth out of the state’s mechanism. This is a big deal, Schiraldi said, when the biggest city in the nation chooses to do this. And he added, New York is not alone, referring to realignment in California and experiments in Texas, Detroit and Chicago.

He closed by pointing out that there is a lot of evidence to show that kids sent into big facilities are more prone to reoffend, to have poor education and employment outcomes and for their mental health condition to worsen and in some instances be the reason for an onset of mental illness.

Panel Two:

Elizabeth Scott

Elizabeth Scott, a professor of law at Columbia University Law School, moderated a panel on juvenile justice reforms and politics. The main question she and other panelists asked was: Will deinstitutionalization and other reforms last?

The other panelists included: Gladys Carrion, the Commissioner of New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services; Marc Levin, director of Center for Effective Justice, Texas Policy Foundation and Daniel Chaney, director of the Juvenile Services Division of the Department of Children and Family Services in Wayne County, Mich.

Scott said knowledge of adolescent behavior tends to make for better policy, adding that there is little question that detention is a potentially toxic environment for juveniles. Alternatives to detention, she said, have been shown to be more effective in many instances.

Progress is being made, changes are being implemented, but the next time we see a high profile crime, a school shooting or something similar, will we see another wave of moral panic, she asked.

If a moral panic sets in, then those reforms are likely to be rolled back. What distinguishes a moral panic from a rational response, she said, is not that the threat is not real, but through a dynamic process among politicians and media and the public, the perception of how serious the threat is will become exaggerated. This is what unfolded in the 1990s. Crime is not a hot button issue now, but if it is something the politicians see as a hot button, they will reengage with the issue.

Scott went onto say that the media helped sustain the moral panic in the 1990s. What happens, the shooting, the teen crime, might be rare, but it is elevated in the public’s mind. These vivid stories contributed to a distorted image of what the larger picture is.

School violence, for example, was vastly blown out of proportion.  The media can be faulted for not covering the issue but for also not providing context.

But, the media has been very influential in recent years in pointing out the need for reforms.

Gladys Carrion

Gladys Carrion spoke about reform efforts in New York. There was a realization in the state several years ago, she said, that the system “was broken.”

It hasn’t been easy, Carrion said. There have been many challenges in closing 18 detention facilities. Many of these facilities are in small, up state communities. Their closure has had negative economic impacts on those communities. Unions have also been opposed to the closings.

There were, however, many practical reasons for closing the facilities, including costs which including more than $200,000 a year per child per year. More closings will be announced in the future.

If you want change, she said, you must have a lot of people on board, including parents, the media, the judges, young people, politicians and the public.

She also pointed out that the Department of Justice was of help too. The DOJ issued a report that found New York was not providing key support to detained youth and that the facilities were in poor condition.

This DOJ report and the order that followed served to move many decision-makers in the direction of reform.

Daniel Chaney, of Wayne County, Mich., spoke about how Detroit youth offenders were integrated into the county’s system. Before this was undertaken at the invitation of the city, however, one of the basic questions asked was, are the right kids coming into this system?

Administrators in Wayne County discovered that most kids could be put into non-detention programs.

Daniel Chaney

Cheney spoke of how of the changes were driven by budget challenges. Detroit was in financial trouble, but Wayne County was also in jeopardy of having its bond ratings lowered. So changes had to be made and because of those changes, better ways of doing things were discovered.

Marc Levin, from the Texas Policy Foundation, said the media played a role in bringing about reform in Texas because of a series of scandals in the youth detention facilities.

To the question, will reforms be sustainable, both in Texas and elsewhere, Levin said he believes the public is in front of the politicians on many of he key issues and that this provides an advantage. “The public is more lenient than the prosecutors and the politicians in some instances,” he said.

He also said that there is a role for media in demanding transparency, in looking at missing data such as adults who were on juvenile probation. However, he said, there is a bigger lack of transparency in the public school system and in the child welfare system.

Levin stressed that the issue of solitary confinement has not been covered adequately by the media. He noted documented instances in the adult system when adults had been released directory from solitary confinement into the community. He added that there is very little emphasis on reentry of juveniles back into society.

For coverage of Day Two head to our post here.

Photos by Clay Duda |

Juvenile Justice in New Orleans: LGBT issues, School-to-Prison Pipeline and More

On March 22nd, 2012, The Lens welcomed five panelists and over 100 attendees to its third salon at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, which focused on the status of the juvenile justice system in the New Orleans area.

Panelists were queried by the moderator on issues surrounding the new French Quarter youth curfew, LGBTQ youth issues in juvenile facilities, the rebuilding of the Youth Studies Center, the school to prison pipeline, and the New Orleans Parish Prison. Audience members were then invited to pose their own questions to the panel.


Dana Kaplan - Executive Director of Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana
Wes Ware - Founder & Director of BreakOUT!
Michael Bradley - Deputy Chief District Defender at Orleans Public Defenders
Eden Heilman - Senior Staff Attorney at Southern Poverty Law Center
Alison McCrary - Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow at Safe Streets/Strong Communities

This panel was one in a series of events held by The Lens to engage readers and New Orleans stakeholders on current issues.

Thanks to all of our panelists for lending their time and insight, the Ashe Cultural Arts Center for the use of their space, Il Posto and Dorignac’s for their contributions, and to everyone who attended.

The post above is reprinted with permission from The Lens and Reclaiming Futures.

Southern Poverty Law Center Sues Birmingham Schools for Using Mace on Children

Teens in Birmingham, Ala. schools have been routinely sprayed with mace and pepper spray as punishment for minor offenses. The Southern Poverty Law Center has now filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Birmingham City School District on behalf of students who've had chemicals used on them.

“We must ask ourselves, what kind of school system allows armed officers to come in and use mace on its children,” said Ebony Glenn Howard, lead attorney on the case for the Center.

Hundreds of students were arrested in the Birmingham City Schools last year for minor offenses that could have been taken care of in the principal’s office, according to the Center. The SPLC threatened to sue the Birmingham School Board last month if the Board did not agree to stop the practice of spraying kids, according to the Birmingham News.

The lawsuit claims the use of chemical weapons against children to enforce basic school discipline is unconstitutional. The Center is seeking financial damages for students and their parents.

The lawsuit also details how mace is used against restrained kids who pose no threat to themselves or others.

The suit points out that kids who are exposed to pepper spray and mace are at risk for several health effects, ranging from temporary vision loss to eye and skin blistering. They can also get life threatening symptoms like throat inflammation and swelling, which could make it hard for a child to breathe.

WBRC-TV tried to get in touch with the Birmingham School District and still has not gotten a response.

To read the full lawsuit, click here.

Feds Say Suspension Overused on Minority Students

A growing number of schools suspend over 50% of their racial and ethnic students in a given year, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center study.

The study, called Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis, found that zero tolerance policies in schools have led to suspension being overused as a disciplinary tool, especially for kids of color.

This corresponds with the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice’s public school discipline study across the state, which is underway right now. As reported Friday, Georgia Appleseed is surveying parents and kids in Phase II of its study on school discipline methods in public schools.

An early version of the study, called Effective School Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class, showed a high number of minority kids being punished by out-of-school suspension, which adversely affected their success in school. School systems with the highest rates of suspension had graduation rates below the state average.

The Georgia study also found that black kids, special education students and those receiving free or reduced lunches were disciplined more than other kids.

If you’re interested in learning how to reduce disproportionate minority contact in school suspensions, check out the webinar called “The Critical Role of Schools in Combating Disproportionate Minority Contact: National Perspective and Local Solutions”, taking place on November 18 at 11am. The event is hosted by a group with a very long name: The National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Children and Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or At Risk. Click here to register.

Black Boys Suspended from School 3 Times More than White Boys, Says New Study

Middle school kids nationwide, specifically minorities, are facing out of school suspension at alarming rates, according to a study published by the Southern Poverty Law Center called Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis.

Atlanta is one of 18 urban school districts the researchers studied. Using data from more than 9,000 middle schools they discovered a suspension rate of 11.2 percent. But the suspension rate for black boys was dramatically higher at 28.3 percent…almost three times higher than the rate for white boys. Continue reading Black Boys Suspended from School 3 Times More than White Boys, Says New Study

New Rules: Isolation, Handcuffs, Hogties

Schools cannot put children in seclusion rooms as a form of punishment anymore, and must limit the use of physical and chemical restraints. The State Board of Education approved new rules Thursday for handcuffing children, controlling them with prone restraint tactics, and giving them prescription drugs to control their behavior. These measures are now limited to situations where students are an immediate danger to themselves or others, or when calming techniques don’t work.

Parents of 13-year old Jonathon King of Gainesville pushed for changes after their son hanged himself in a seclusion room in 2004. Jonathan was a student in the Alpine Program, a public school in Gainesville, Ga. for students with emotional and behavioral problems. A few weeks before his death, Jonathan told his parents that teachers had been putting him in time out.   They testified last month at a hearing at the Board of Education.  “After he died, we found out that Jonathan wasn’t in there for minutes,” Don King said. “He was in there for hours at a time every day.”

For decades, Georgia schools have used seclusion and various types of restraints on children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to prevent classroom disruptions. “I’ve seen handcuffs, hogties, kids being tied up with Velcro. I’ve seen kids locked in storage closets. And I’ve seen, very recently, a plywood box in a principal’s office,” says Leslie Lipson, spokesperson for the Georgia Advocacy Office, who also testified in June.

The new rules apply to all children in public schools, and get praise from Randee Waldman, director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory Law School. ”Georgia is trying to address this. Georgia is one step ahead,” She adds, “Handcuffs shouldn’t be used to punish a child,”

But educators and child advocates admit they’re not sure exactly how often children are placed in seclusion, or handcuffed, or even how many are arrested in Georgia schools. Data from the Education Department indicates approximately 1,900 children statewide were referred to juvenile court during the 2008-2009 school year.  However, numbers from Atlanta are missing from the count, and some experts believe the total may be significantly higher.

“We’re having a hard time figuring out how many kids are referred to Juvenile Court much less handcuffed,” says Waldman. “Schools are not required to maintain data on how many times children are handcuffed. “

That may soon change. Brad Bryant, the new state schools superintendent, tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he expects a data collection system to be put in place. And for the first time, parents must be notified when their children have been restrained by a school administrator or teacher.

The Board approved the new policy on the same day school officials in New Orleans were slapped with a federal lawsuit for shackling a 6-year old boy to a desk.

The first grader was arrested, handcuffed and chained up by school police after arguing with another child over a seat in the lunchroom.   The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit Thursday in Federal Court, claiming the arrest for a minor violation of school rules is unlawful and a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

The complaint names the elementary school principal, school superintendent and security director, and was filed on behalf of all children in the school.  SPLC Attorney Thena Robinson says, "We’re hopeful this [lawsuit] will send a powerful message. We have to treat kids with dignity.  There are ways to keep kids safe and treat them with dignity."

The boy’s father, Sebastian Weston, says his son was treated like an animal is now terrified of school.

A spokesman for the Recovery School District confirms the incident happened May 6, and two security officers were fired, but would not comment further.

The suit alleges the officers were not properly trained “about developmentally appropriate responses to elementary school children who fail to follow school rules.”

Attorneys also contend that under state law, a 6-year old child cannot be arrested, but the school principal had a policy of handcuffing children who violated rules.  When the officers chained him to the furniture “they subjected him to an unreasonable and excessively intrusive seizure that was calculated solely to punish, humiliate and intimidate. “

“We cannot wrap our heads around why the principal thought it would be okay to shackle a child to a desk,” Robinson says. “So many things could have been done, even if he was getting out of control. Six-year olds throw temper tantrums.  It’s up to adults to redirect them.”