Strategies for educating youth in the juvenile justice system
National research shows that nearly half of the youth in the juvenile justice system are performing below grade level in reading and math, many are marginally literate or illiterate, and most have a history of significant truancy and grade retention. About two out of three students drop out after exiting the juvenile justice system.
Youth in the juvenile justice system are more than three times as likely to have a learning disability than their counterparts outside the system, with about one-third of them identified as eligible for special education services. But the barriers to meeting their educational needs include high rates of mobility, improper identification of students, low quality of educational programs, lack of qualified staff, the absence of an active, involved decision maker, and lack of collaboration among agencies.
Here are several strategies that can make a difference.
Properly identify students and reduce referrals to the system: The proportion of youth in the juvenile justice system who qualify for special education services has been estimated to be as high as 80 percent. Some studies suggest that the failure to accurately identify students with disabilities leads to juvenile justice involvement. Accordingly, it is imperative that school staff consider whether the child’s conduct at issue is related to a disability. If so, the matter should be addressed through school and community-based supports rather than the juvenile justice system. Schools must properly identify a youth’s disability category and ensure that a loss of records does not interfere in the identification of students.
New requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act address many of these issues. For instance, juvenile justice facilities must now undertake a comprehensive assessment of a students’ educational needs upon entry to a correctional facility. Such an assessment should address whether a student should be evaluated or reevaluated to determine eligibility for special education services. In addition, because system-involved youth are highly mobile, such evaluations should occur on an expedited basis, within 30 days.
Ensure parent involvement: The special education process is a “parent-driven” system, and it is essential that all youth in this process have a clearly identified, active, and involved person in the role of parent. In many cases, school districts or agencies where a youth is placed fail to ensure the participation of parents and guardians of students with disabilities. This is a violation of the child’s due process rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and must be challenged. In addition, Pennsylvania’s juvenile court rules require judges to appoint an educational decision maker for children in the delinquency system who lack one. Finally, a local educational agency must appoint a “surrogate parent” for a ward of the state with a disability who lacks an active, involved IDEA parent (e.g. biological parent, foster parent, or person with whom the child lives). These appointments must be made promptly as needed and with greater collaboration between facilities and local educational agencies.
Ensure a free, appropriate, public education: With certain exceptions for youth in adult prisons, IDEA’s protections and rights apply in full force to youth with disabilities and their parents in the juvenile justice system. Provision of a free, appropriate public education is a shared responsibility. Although the school district where the facility is located has primary responsibility, the provision of services should be governed by an interagency agreement among the district, juvenile justice facility, and the paying school district of residence. An IEP must be updated based on all information available, including the student’s assessment upon entering the facility, and must include the student’s assessment, an updated functional behavioral assessment, and positive behavior support plan with measurable goals and benchmarks, a detailed transition plan, and adequate services to enable a student to make meaningful progress. Progress monitoring should be provided every week or two to ensure that new programming is effective.
The state’s Bureau of Special Education must also play a stronger role by exercising greater supervision and oversight over a facility’s educational programs. This includes monitoring more frequently than the current level of once every six years and engaging in more robust assessments, including the extent to which the programs provide differentiated instruction, adhere to the specific requirements of randomly selected IEPs, comply with detailed and meaningful transition plans, and ensure that children with disabilities are educated in the least restrictive environment, which may result in expanded co-teaching in regular education classrooms.
Accommodate all students with qualifying disabilities: Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 apply to all youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system. They require that these youth participate equally in educational programming and are not discriminated against based on their disability. This means that youth with qualifying disabilities, including mental health conditions, must be evaluated and receive accommodations in accordance with Section 504 plans while being educated in placements.
Ensure interagency coordination: The failure to provide education records promptly can interfere with a student’s ability to receive a free, appropriate public education. A student’s home school district must provide records upon a student’s transfer to a juvenile placement. Similarly, the facility must provide its records to the home school upon a student’s return. Education and juvenile justice partners must work together beginning at least 30 days before discharge to support a student’s successful transition, including ensuring an appropriate school placement, collaborating to conduct credit assessment, and developing a graduation plan. Making sure that youth in the juvenile justice system receive a high-quality education is essential to their well-being, and it affects recidivism, employment, housing, income, and health. Enforcing students’ rights by providing effective special education services and accommodations in schools is a core component of this undertaking.
Maura McInerney is the legal director at the Education Law Center.