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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.”  

U.S. Senate Subcommittee Hears Testimony on School-to-Prison Pipeline

Edward Ward, Youth Leader, Blocks Together
Edward Ward, Youth Leader, Blocks Together

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Twenty-year-old Edward Ward, a sophomore on the honor roll at DePaul University, tried to describe to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), the only senators left in the room by the time he spoke on Capitol Hill Wednesday, what it was like to grow up in his neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.

“When I was 18, I witnessed a complete stranger's killing mere feet from me in a neighborhood restaurant," Ward said before the Senate subcommittee. "I was stopped by the police a few years ago. I saw them train their guns on me until I could show them the item in my hand was only a cell phone.”

Things didn’t get much better at high school, Ward said. “My school environment was very tense. The halls were full of security officers whose sole purpose seemed to serve detention. I felt constantly on alert – afraid to make the smallest mistake. I felt I couldn't go to them for general security issues because first I would be interrogated.”

schoolppipe_seriesMore than 400 people crammed into hearing rooms in two separate U.S. Senate office buildings to hear lawmakers, educators, federal and court officials, and Ward testify about how punitive disciplinary measures at schools were funneling children into the criminal justice system, often for minor offenses like truancy or dress code violations, and at much higher rates if they were minorities.

This was the first-ever Congressional hearing on the subject, according to Dignity in Schools, a coalition of parents, educators and students advocating for the end of zero-tolerance policies in schools. Ward, who also works as a community organizer, is a member of the coalition.

Although many of his classmates wanted to succeed academically, they were hobbled by financial struggles at home and the responsibility of caring for siblings, Ward said. A classmate was suspended for being late to school, he said, even though she was tardy because she couldn’t leave her little brother alone at home until her parents returned from work.

There were lots of instances where his classmates were suspended or expelled for minor offenses that should have merited “a stern warning or a reminder,” Ward said. When they were suspended, they often disappeared for days -- weeks if they were kicked out of school, he said.

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

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“We have a discipline crisis in this country that must be ended,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the civil rights group The Advancement Projectand another witness at the hearing.

Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director, Advancement Project
Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director, Advancement Project

“Police are arresting youth for things like talking back. That’s now ‘disorderly conduct.’ Writing on desks is now vandalism.”

At the same time, racial disproportionality in school discipline can be such that, within the same school district, a five-year-old African-American girl who set off a fire alarm was suspended for five days, while a white ninth-grader who committed the same offense was suspended for just one day, testified Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Held by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, the hearing drew so much public interest that it was shifted to a 260-seat room, the largest available, in the Hart Senate building.

Other witnesses at the hearing included U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.); Melodee Hanes, the acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; Mike DeWine, the attorney general for Ohio; and Judge Steven Teske, chief judge at the Clayton County juvenile court in Georgia. (Judge Teske is a frequent op-ed contributor to the JJIE.)

By the time the hearing was to start, the first room was full. A mass of young people, many wearing Dignity in Schools t-shirts, was still lined up in the hallway outside, waiting to get in. Capitol Hill staffers soon escorted them three floors up in an adjacent building to a 150-seat “overflow room” equipped with a live video feed.

But that room soon ran out of seats too.

OJJDP’s Hanes told the senators that millions of children were suspended or expelled every year for minor infractions like truancy, classroom disruption or dress code violations. Fifteen percent were suspended 11 or more times, she said, and those were the kids who were more likely minorities and who were likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

“We have learned that the minute a child sets foot in the juvenile justice system, their chances of becoming an adult offender go up 50 percent,” Hanes said. “As soon as they enter the juvenile justice system, their chances of completing their education, of getting a job, their chances of life, diminish significantly.”

The costs to taxpayers are significant as well, Hanes pointed out: It cost $10,000 a year to educate a child, and $87,000 a year to lock a child up.

“Research has clearly indicated that children exposed to violence in the home or in school or in the community, those children suffer trauma. The evidence is conclusive that those children don’t do as well,” Hanes said.

Ward said his classmates' experience bore that out. “A lot of youth from where I come from, they face huge struggles, huge difficulties,” Ward said. “We have to take into account the situations students face outside school to understand their actions when they’re in school.”

Any discussions of solutions had to include young people themselves, several witnesses said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this issue,” Dianis of the Advancement Project said. “Young people have to be part of this conversation.”

Witnesses on the third panel listen as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine testifies.
Witnesses on the third panel listen as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine testifies.

Solutions included developing greater consensus among experts about best practices, greater collaboration on research and data between federal agencies and better guidance for school districts and states on practices that maintain students’ rights. Other solutions proposed were greater public education on the necessity for appropriate responses to delinquent behavior, more training for police officers in crisis intervention and greater awareness on the part of the public and law enforcement on how to handle those from diverse social, medical and economic backgrounds.

“We’re basically using our criminal justice system as a substitute for a public health system and an education system,” Franken said during the hearing. “This is a bipartisan issue. There is no question about that.”

Senate hearing photos courtesy of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith.

Exploring the Use of Pell Grants To Go From Prison to College

NEWARK, N.J. – Recidivism could be cut and public dollars could be saved if lawmakers lifted a longstanding federal ban on Pell grants to prisoners.

Those were some of the key arguments made at Rutgers University last week by a group of academics, criminal justice reformers and formerly incarcerated individuals in a fledgling program meant to serve as a bridge from a youth correctional facility to college.

John J. Farmer, Jr., former New Jersey attorney general and now Dean and Professor of Law at the Rutgers School of Law, called the restoration of Pell grants for prisoners “one of the most important dialogues we can have in the context of law enforcement.”

“I think that education in our prisons is the key to preventing recidivism,” Farmer said.

Farmer made his remarks Thursday at the Rutgers University Paul Robeson Campus Center during an event titled “Pell Grants and Prison Education: How Pell Grant Access in Prison Transforms Lives.”

Among those who spoke in support of lifting the ban on Pell grants to prisoners was Dallas Pell, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, father of Pell grants.

Pell, who is founder of an organization called Pell Grants for Public Safety, said providing education for individuals in prison is a “no-brainer” and “one of the most effective tools we have to make our community safe.”

Pell and various speakers noted how a plethora of studies have repeatedly found that higher education for prisoners significantly reduces their likelihood of returning to prison. Indeed, a 2005 Institute for Higher Education report, titled “Learning to Reduce Recidivism,” noted how “research consistently demonstrates that participation in educational programs while incarcerated reduces recidivism rates by increasing an individual’s ability to successfully rejoin mainstream society upon release from prison.” The paper also recommends restoration of Pell grants for prisoners.

While academic support for education in correctional settings is easy to find, political will to lift the federal ban on Pell grants to prisoners has been more difficult to garner.

Farmer said toward the end of his stint as New Jersey Attorney General from 1999 to 2002, he tried to sponsor legislation that would provide for increased educational opportunities for prisoners in order to make it easier for them to reenter society.

“At the time there just was no traction among the political people to pass legislation like this,” Farmer said.

The group that organized Thursday’s discussion – The Education from the Inside Out Coalition – has faced similar challenges.

Over the past few years, the organization has approached key members of Congress and, more recently, officials at the U.S. Department of Education in an attempt to get them to reverse the 1994 ban on Pell grants for incarcerated individuals.

Each time, those involved in the effort say, they leave the table with the idea that they must first build broad public support before any official will take the issue on.

Beyond politics, the Pell grant program faces a $6 billion shortfall for the 2014-2015 school year.

Glenn Martin, vice president at The Fortune Society, an advocacy group that works on prisoner reentry issues, dismissed the $6 billion shortfall for the Pell grant program as a distraction in the discussion about restoring Pell grants to prisoners. He said the Pell grant program has faced shortfalls before and Congress has always found ways to fill them.

Asked what the actual dollar increase would be if Pell grants to prisoners were restored, Dallas Pell cited a statistic that showed that prisoners represented a fraction of a percent of all Pell grant recipients.

Proponents of Pell grants for prisoners argue that irrespective of the cost, society will pay more to incarcerate individuals than it would to educate prisoners and thereby lessen their likelihood of returning to prison.

To bolster their case, they cited studies, for instance, such as “Prison vs. Princeton,” which showed that it costs $44,000 to incarcerate one prisoner for a year in New Jersey, whereas the cost to attend Princeton University is $37,000 per year.

Another report by the Correctional Association of New York found  “lopsided” spending on prison versus education, specifically, $44,000 per year to house prisoners versus $7,645 per full-time student within the State University of New York system.

“The cost differences in education versus incarceration in New York, plus the short- and long-term benefits of a better educated population, makes investment in higher education for incarcerated individuals and people in the community smart fiscal policy,” the report states.

Todd Clear, dean of the school of criminal justice at Rutgers, said educating inmates is the most effective thing that can be done to reduce recidivism.

“Everything else comes in second or later,” Clear said.

Panelist Walter Fortson, 27, a former inmate at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility who is now a graduating senior at Rutgers -- said he gets questioned all the time about the fact that he was granted a $30,000 Harry S. Truman Scholarship. Fortson – who served time for selling crack cocaine -- eventually got involved in a program at Mountainview that helps inmates there gain admission to Rutgers.

In online comments about various articles that have been written about transformation from convicted drug dealer to scholarship-winning student at Rutgers, Fortson said, “people would say, ‘This isn’t fair. I’m paying off loans that I’ve been paying for the last (several) years, and they give this felon a scholarship,’” said Fortson, who is founding president of the Mountainview Student Organization.

“But I will never go back to prison,” said Fortson, who plans to go on to graduate school to study public affairs. “And that’s something you would have paid $50,000 a year for every year I was there. What would you prefer?” Vivian Nixon, leader of The Education from the Inside Out Coalition and executive director of the College and Community Fellowship, a group that works on reentry issues for women with criminal convictions, said there are reasons to support education for prisoners that transcend the public cost.

“Education isn’t a social service program,” Nixon said. “It’s a fundamental human right. It’s essential in order to achieve other rights.”

To those who examine the issue in terms of costs, Nixon said, “You can’t put a price tag on hope.”

Photo courtesy of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition.

2011 Research Data Shows Social Media Sites Can Improve Students’ Education

Spending time on social media sites, such as Facebook, can help students do better in school, according to new research by an education professor at University of Maryland.

In a survey of 600 low-income high school students, Christine Greenhow found that students build bonds when they connect with school friends on social networking sites. She said she focused on low-income students because research on this group is lacking but necessary for creating more equal learning opportunities.

“When kids feel connected and have a strong sense of belonging to the school community, they do better in school,” Greenhow told the investigative reporting website California Watch.

Some students also turn to their social networks for tips about college and career choices.

Her paper will be published in the winter, but the debate is still going strong about whether teachers should use social media in their classrooms.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education released its National Education Technology Plan, which includes a proposal to use social networking as a platform for learning. Some educators are concerned that the sites encourage students to procrastinate and catch up with friends.

Earlier this month, JJIE reported on a study that says social networking teens are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs because they see pictures of the activities on the sites.

Greenhow acknowledges the pitfalls, but still believes in recognizing the positive side. She’s been studying adolescent Internet habits since 2007, and also found that high school students are boosting their creativity and technology skills through the sites.

Whether social networking is good or bad, many students are using the sites on a daily basis. Seventy-three percent of wired American teens now use social networking websites, according to the most recent data presented by the Pew Research Center in 2010.

Blueprint for Turning Schools Around Fast

Dramatic and comprehensive change is the key to improving school performance, according to a new research paper. The School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education says bold strategies are the only way to narrow the achievement gap for low-income and minority students.

This advice comes as school systems across the country are applying for the next round of Title 1 School Improvement Grants this year.  Researchers recommend that money should only fund bold and truly different programs. They discourage funding for schools that are using the same old strategies that contributed to their decline in the first place.  Some other recommendations:

  • Think Big
  • Relentlessly enforce accountability for student achievement
  • Encourage school districts to use partners in bold and innovative ways
  • Create district level strategies
  • Communicate with families

School Boards Dispute Federal Bullying Policies

School boards across the country are protesting federal bullying policy. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) is challenging the U.S. Department of Education on the federal interpretation of bullying as a civil rights violation.

As JJIE reported in October, the Department sent a 10-page letter warning schools to comply with federal rules to prevent bullying and harassment. It also said student bullying may violate anti-discrimination laws.

The letter sent to schools nationwide said: “When…harassment is based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability, it violates the civil rights laws that [the Office for Civil Rights] enforces.”

NSBA sent a letter Tuesday to Charlie Rose, General Counsel for the Department of Education, urging the Department to clarify it’s definition of bullying and harassment as a civil rights violation.

“…Our fear is that absent clarification, the Department’s expansive reading of the law as stated in the [letter] will invite misguided litigation that needlessly drains precious school resources and creates adversarial climates that distract schools from their educational mission,” NSBA’s letter says.

In Georgia, new bullying polices must be in place by next school year. Each local board of education must adopt a new bullying policy by August 1, 2011 that does the following:

  • Prohibits student-to-student bullying in the code of conduct.
  • Requires third time bullying offenders to be assigned to an alternative school.
  • Establishes a plan to notify parents or guardians of kids who bully or are the victim of bullying.
  • Ensures that students and parents are notified about the new policy.

Georgia’s Department of Education has a bullying policy posted on its website to help local school systems create their new policies.