School Climate & Safety

In Many States, Prospects Are Grim for Incarcerated Youths

By Denisa R. Superville — December 08, 2015 9 min read
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The quality of schooling for tens of thousands of incarcerated juveniles falls far short of the education their peers receive in public schools, advocates say, raising major concerns about the prospects of one of the most vulnerable groups of students.

Even as the number of incarcerated juveniles dropped significantly over the past decade, only 13 states provide students who are behind bars with the same types of educational and vocational services, including GED preparation, credit recovery, and postsecondary courses, that students in schools receive, a survey of juvenile-corrections agencies by the Council of State Governments Justice Center shows.

In a report released last month, the council found that many states do not hold schools inside juvenile correctional facilities—which can be run by the states, private companies, or nonprofit organizations—accountable for providing students with curricula aligned with a state’s college- and career-readiness standards. And many do not have rigorous oversight of educational programs at those facilities as they do for regular public schools.

While the number of juveniles in state custody has dropped in the past decade and a half, from more than 75,000 in 1997 to just under 36,000 in 2013, the proportion of juveniles in privately run and locally run facilities grew from 46 percent to 61 percent. That trend makes it harder to ensure that all students have access to programs of the same quality. (The council’s survey did not include all facilities where juveniles are locked up, including those in adult prisons.)

And students are not just shortchanged educationally when they are incarcerated, the report says. A number of states do not provide transition services to help juveniles re-enter the community, leaving it up to students, their parents, schools, and communities to figure out what to do once they are released, according to the report.

“There is no subset of youth in more acute need of educational services than incarcerated youth,” Michael Thompson, the director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said in a conference call with reporters when the report was released.

He added: “If there is any hope of getting their lives back on track, they are going to need a better education.”

The report comes as criminal-justice reform has become a bipartisan issue in statehouses and in Congress. There’s also more scrutiny of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. That pipeline, advocates say, begins with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies for minor infractions, which disproportionately ensnare African-American and Latino students in the criminal-justice system.

Complaints in Maryland

Efforts are also underway to expand educational and vocational opportunities for those in juvenile facilities and smooth their re-entry into the community. Last December, the U.S. Department of Education released a new set of guidance for improving education services for incarcerated youths, and in July, the Obama administration announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot program, which would help incarcerated students apply for Pell Grants for postsecondary education and training. These programs all aim to reduce recidivism and equip incarcerated individuals with tools to find jobs when they are released.

The council’s findings underscore what Barbara Dezmon, the education chair of the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP, and Grace Reusing, a public defender in Maryland who represents juvenile defendants, said they have seen in their state.

In November, the Maryland chapter of the NAACP filed a complaint with civil rights officials in the U.S. departments of Education and Justice, requesting that both agencies investigate the “poor provision” of education services for incarcerated juveniles in Maryland.

The complaint, which the NAACP declined to make public, asks federal officials to look into such areas as the state’s failure to maintain and transfer the academic records of incarcerated students; the absence of qualified special education teachers in math and English; the ability of students to take part in statewide assessments; and a failure to properly manage individualized education programs, or IEPs, for special education students.

State’s Response

A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education, which oversees education programs at the state’s 14 juvenile-detention facilities, said officials had not seen the complaint as of early December, so he could not comment on it.

Dezmon of the NAACP said the complaint is based, in part, on some of the legal actions that Reusing, the public defender, previously brought against the state. In some of those cases, the state acknowledged violations. In 2013, for example, Reusing filed a complaint on behalf of seven students with disabilities and all students in Maryland’s juvenile facilities, alleging a number of violations, including that the state did not abide by certain provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Among the charges were allegations that the state did not provide special education students with instruction that would enable them to be involved in, or make progress in, the general education curriculum, and not ensuring that proper procedures were followed in reviewing and assessing students’ IEPs.

In its response, the Maryland superintendent’s office acknowledged that the state education department had not “consistently” ensured before 2014 that students in all its facilities had access to courses that would enable them to make progress in the general curriculum. On the IEP charge, the response said there was documentation that its facilities had not been “consistently provided with services that are similar or equivalent to those that are described in the IEP” from the students’ previous schools. On other charges, the state found no wrongdoing.

Reusing said the problems were not limited to a few detention centers, but were “systemic.” If a course needed for graduation is not offered at the juvenile facility, it is unlikely that a student will return to his or her home school for an entire year simply to finish one course, she said.

“When these students get out, they say there is no way I am going to repeat 9th grade again, and what happens is that they end up dropping out of school,” she said. “That’s what we are finding: that [if] you don’t give them the services, eventually these kids are ending up either trying to get their GED and not being able to because they are still on a 3rd or 4th grade reading level, or they just drop out entirely.”

While the Maryland officials did not respond directly to the NAACP’s allegations, they answered questions about the services they are providing to students in their care. The Education Department assumed full control of the educational services in juvenile facilities in 2013. Those services had been provided by the Department of Juvenile Services.

Annually, the agency oversees about 5,000 students, the majority of whom are between the ages of 15 and 17, said Beth Hart, the director of the juvenile-services education program at the Maryland education department. The facilities provide six hours of instruction daily, five days a week, she said.

Hart said she believes the services are comparable to what other students receive to help them gain a Maryland high school diploma. Vocational offerings, she said, depend on the facility. Because the population is highly mobile, the department is developing additional vocational courses for juveniles who are incarcerated for a short period.

The state education department has plans to expand instructional technology to offer more courses and individualize instruction, she said. It is also working to expand credit-recovery programs and to build a system that would track whether students who transition back to the community earn a high school diploma or a General Educational Development credential.

‘A Second Chance’

In its report, the Council of State Governments makes recommendations that encourage states to provide rigorous curricula, highly qualified teachers, educational facilities that are nationally accredited, transition assistance, and assessments and programs that are tailored for the population, given that the lengths of stays in facilities vary.

The organization also highlights notable state programs. Among the states cited is Massachusetts, which the report singles out for its education and career counselors who help students re-enter the community. Juveniles in Massachusetts are assigned a counselor and a caseworker once they enter the facilities, and those employees work with students on re-entry plans, tailored to whether they will return to school or the workforce.

Younger students are put on a “graduation grid,” a tracking system that focuses on what courses they need to take to graduate, said Christine Kenney, the director of educational services at the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.

Before students are released, there is a 90-day check-in, when the education and career counselor meets with officials in a school district to discuss students’ credits, share preliminary transcripts, and talk about what courses they need to take once they return. Similar reviews happen twice more, at 60 days before students are released and again at 30 days.If the youth is not returning to school, a similar process is developed for workforce re-entry, Kenney said. Once students return to school, the counselors attend hearings on suspensions and expulsions, and work with special education administrators in cases where students have IEPs. They also help arrange financial support for those who are going to college.

“It really is the guidance-counselor model, where they are really involved in the young people’s lives,” she said.

The report also cites Oregon for expansion of educational and vocational services in its detention centers, which are provided by the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Youth Authority.

Frank Martin, the education coordinator at the Oregon Youth Authority, said incarcerated students get 220 instructional days during an academic year and have 5 ½ hours of instruction a day, 11 months a year. They are taught by teachers from school districts, and they have access to vocational and certificate programs, including welding, wastewater-treatment management, and firefighting, Martin said.

The goal, he said, is to prepare incarcerated youths to fully participate in their communities once they’re released.

Martin said Oregon’s track record with incarcerated youths is connected to setting high expectations for them—with a strong emphasis on post-secondary education—and providing ample resources. The state allows incarcerated youth to access the Internet, which enabled officials to use personalized learning and blended learning. They also offer dual-credit courses and have partnerships with local universities that allow professors to teach courses at some facilities, with incarcerated youths sitting side by side with college students, Martin said.

“It’s about saying that they deserve a second chance. “They can become better people. It’s all up to them. ... But if we don’t provide them with the tools, they are not going to be successful.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as Locked-Up Youths See Grim Prospects In Many States


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