Educational Justice

In 2013, our nation’s juvenile courts handled approximately 1.1 million juvenile delinquency cases.  This number of children represents more than the total population within states like Alaska, the District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, or Wyoming.  Would we simply discard a state or our nation’s capital?  Or, as we pledge allegiance, are we truly “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?”  We espouse that we try to do all that we can to help make our territories and communities better.  But there seems to be a shift when we are dealing with human beings who have been accused of committing crimes.  And, even more specifically, when it’s our most vulnerable population – our incarcerated youth.

While the numbers of incarcerated youth have been decreasing over the years, largely because of the advocacy work to provide other alternatives for children exhibiting delinquent behaviors, we still incarcerate more than 100,000 juveniles each year.  This equates to approximately 60,000 youth being housed in our nation’s approximate 2,600 juvenile residential facilities, of which 49% are privately owned and operated; and more than 1,000 youth ages 17 and younger, are housed in our adult prisons.

We can’t continue to be part of the problem or perhaps worst, to pretend that there is no problem.  It’s only when we read an article like the NAACP requests federal investigation into juvenile justice education that we begin to wonder or question, “What exactly is happening to our children who we don’t see each day?”  The Maryland State Department of Education provides a brief description on their website of the educational services they provide their incarcerated students.  Most, if not all states and juvenile facilities espouse quality educational programs for their incarcerated youth; however, there often is tremendous incongruity with what is being touted and what is being actualized.  Maryland is not the only state under review.  Lawsuits continue to ensue throughout the United States.  Moreover, in a study conducted by Read and O’Cummings (2011), they found that only 65% of our nation’s facilities were offering an educational program for all its incarcerated youth.  Furthermore, they cited that only 46% of special needs children who had IEPs prior to being adjudicated reported actually receiving the services outlined in their IEPs while incarcerated.  In the recently released brief provided by the Council of State Governments, Locked Out: Improving Educational and Vocational Outcomes for Incarcerated Youth, we also learn that “only 8 states (16 percent) report providing incarcerated youth with access to the same educational and vocational services that are available to youth in the community.”  It seems like it continues – that the children who need the most, receive the least.  While it’s important to provide the appropriate support structures within our communities so that they avoid downward trajectories; those who are experts in the fields of government, law and education, must work hand in hand to ensure that we are creating viable solutions for the grave inequities and atrocities that exist for our nation’s incarcerated youth.

Both President Obama in the Every Student Succeeds Act and Secretary of Education Duncan, in the December 8, 2014 USDOJ and USDOE joint proclamation cite the need for every student, including incarcerated children, to be exposed to a world-class education.  However, there are incarcerated children within our country who are sometimes being denied even the most basic education.  There are students who may need a foreign language or a higher level mathematics course to graduate; yet because that particular course is not offered at the facility, they must sit idly as time passes and wait until they return to their home school to complete the credit bearing course.  Much like anything in life, we must first envision and then espouse our belief before it is fully actualized or achieved.  This is no different with education.  The 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Achievement) data demonstrates how far we as a nation are lacking with education proficiency.  A comparison of the 34 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, demonstrates how we fare with other developed and developing countries.  The United States ranked 17 in Reading, 20 in Science, and 27 in Mathematics.  Perhaps this is additional evidence that we have a long way to go to achieve world-class status.  And, that’s for our kids “on the outs” – those who have managed to live and function “outside” of our juvenile justice system.  We need to ensure every child is being exposed to a world-class education; and this must include every child, free or incarcerated.

It is becoming more and more evident to me that our children who need the most, by design, receive the least.  Teachers in these settings, though well intentioned, are oftentimes the least prepared to work with children who have significant challenges – children dealing with complex trauma, many of whom are raising themselves and have experienced continual academic failure.  Public defenders who are also well intentioned, are inundated with so many caseloads that make it extremely difficult to provide the time and attention to each case, for each child they represent.  The immeasurable odds are stacked against our most vulnerable children and seemingly all those who are impassioned, led or assigned to help positively impact their life trajectories.  Since 2010, I’ve visited dozens of juvenile justice schools throughout the United States and abroad.  Many of the juvenile justice staff members are working double shifts and are exhausted; public defenders continue to be overloaded with cases, and the teachers continue to hope that their educational programs will be recognized as a priority within their facilities. 

Imagine for a moment, if all facilities were held to high standards, specifically for their education, treatment, and therapy.  Imagine if participants (those incarcerated, staff, educators, public defenders, private attorneys, parents - all stakeholders) were able to score or provide feedback on the quality of the facility and the school’s educational programming.  Additionally, imagine if there were criteria by the few experts we have in this juvenile justice education field and each one of our approximate 2,600 facilities were assessed and scored and ranked; and, at the push of a button, much like a hotel review on tripadvisor or a restaurant review on yelp, public defenders would have access to the data immediately that can be used to agree with the decision a judge has made or to plead the case for their client that the crime they are being convicted of would further exacerbate their situation if sent to a facility that does not offer the one remaining course a child needs to graduate, for example.  It’s important for us to keep in mind that the majority of cases for which our youth get incarcerated are for non-violent crimes.

About two months ago, I was on a call with someone who was adamant that the incarcerated youth in her state’s detention centers had 100% attendance.  I didn't want to be the bearer of bad news; but I informed her that although I hadn’t yet been to every facility across our nation, at every site that I have visited, both nationally and internationally for the past five years, I have yet to find a place where every child is present in all of their classes every day.  I have been in facilities where children have gone two weeks without being exposed to any educational program – as part of their punishment for displaying inappropriate behaviors within the facility.  Does this matter?  Well, if you were paying an average of $408 per day, at the lowest end in Louisiana - $127.84 per day or at the highest end in New York at $966.20 per day per incarcerated youth, for the highest confined juvenile justice setting, you’d want to make sure you were getting your monies worth – right?  Well, it’s time we stop being ignorant.  It’s time we think about the children we don’t see.  It’s time we recognize that what we do or don't do with these children impacts our nation’s future.  The funding is being allocated.  We must ensure that we are both supporting and holding all stakeholders accountable to provide the optimal setting for our children.

These children are our most vulnerable population.  We have to make the work that our teachers, juvenile justice staff, and public defenders do, translate into a more efficient and user-friendlier manner for this population that for so long, our society has ignored.  While we send them away for punishment, we must not also penalize those who feel led to rehabilitate and support their success, despite the ongoing failures these youth continue to experience.

It’s time America.  We don’t need another study to show the continued wrong and injustice we are doing in the name of justice.  We must begin to fortify our communities and provide the supports that are needed so the youth see there are other options than committing crimes.  In addition to the data about the youth’s case, public defenders should be knowledgeable about the educational, health, and behavioral needs of their clients to help provide compelling evidence that a program is/is not a good fit for their client.

During the years of 1998-2010, the state of Florida had a quality assurance program in place for their juvenile facilities, which included an education component.  Through the Juvenile Justice Educational Enhancement Program, each juvenile residential facility was rated and ranked based upon its scores.  Some facilities closed because they were consistently rated below satisfactory.

We must come up with the right formula to determine the specific components needed for all juvenile justice education programs to be deemed exemplary and begin to evaluate, support and/or sanction facilities until all facilities are excellent for children or until we provide the necessary community and social supports and we no longer have any incarcerated children – which would be a victory for our entire society!

Despite the odds stacked against our most vulnerable population and those who provide them service, I remain hopeful.  My desire to ensure we right this wrong is further resolved.  It’s time to make a difference America – and what a blessing for our children and our nation if we live and function as though every life matters.

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