School Climate & Safety

New Federal Guidance Aims to Improve Schooling for Incarcerated Youth

By Evie Blad — December 08, 2014 5 min read
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Alexandria, Va.

The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice jointly announced today guidance on education of confined or incarcerated youths with the aim of helping states and localities to improve outcomes when juveniles are released and to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder released materials at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in Alexandria, Va., after getting a tour from a former student there. The guidance follows recommendations from a report created as part of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, which effort seeks to improve schooling outcomes and opportunities for boys of color.

African American boys are more likely to be disciplined at school than their peers, and they also face higher rates of incarceration and contact with the justice system.

“Students in juvenile justice facilities need a world-class education and rigorous coursework to help them successfully transition out of facilities and back into the classroom or the workforce becoming productive members of society,” Duncan said. “Young people should not fall off track for life just because they come into contact with the justice system.”

The guidance consists of “Dear Colleague” letters that outline the education obligations of juvenile justice residential facilities under federal civil rights laws, clarify that many confined youth are eligible for federal Pell grants for higher education, and specify facilities’ obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The agencies’ also released a set of “guiding principles” for providing education in juvenile justice settings.

The package includes a special focus on issues that are especially relevant to education in juvenile justice settings, including coordination with schools as students transition in and out of their care, use of highly qualified and credentialed teachers, promoting a positive and safe climate for learning, and identifying special education needs.

“Although the overall number of youth involved in the juvenile justice system has been decreasing, there are still more than 60,000 young people in juvenile justice residential facilities in the United States on any given day,” Catherine E. Lhamon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, and Vanita Gupta, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, wrote in the guidance.

Holder noted that the agencies released the guidance at a time of “growing national dialogue about ensuring that America’s justice system serves everyone equally.” Youth in detention facilities are sometimes recipients of inadequate instruction or no instruction at all, Holder said, calling such experiences “unacceptable failures” and “lost opportunities.”

Civil Rights Guidance

State agencies and local school districts are obligated under a variety of civil rights laws to provide fair and equitable education to detained youth, the agencies said in one “Dear Colleague” letter.

“Youth in confinement, many of whom are students with disabilities and English learner students, are often the students in the greatest need of academic, emotional, and behavioral supports,” the letter said.

Duncan said the education and justice departments are “open for business” and ready to respond to any new civil rights complaints sparked by additional guidance.

“If we get more complaints because we’re being more public and visible here, we welcome that,” he said.

According to the guidance, juvenile justice facilities must:

  • Provide equal access to academic coursework and career and technical education for males and females, even if they are detained in single-sex settings. “For example, a facility should not make available automotive repair programs only to boys and cosmetology programs only to girls,” the letter said.
  • Meet the needs of English-learner students, though they are not obligated to use a specific educational model to accomplish this.
  • Avoid “discriminatory discipline on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or disability. The agencies issued similar guidance to all public schools in January.
  • Respond “promptly and effectively to violence and harassment based on race, color,national origin, sex, or disability.”
  • Provide communication aids and services for students with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities. That includes Braille materials, screen reading devices, and interpretation services.
  • Ensure “effective communication” between detained youth and family members or visitors who have hearing, vision, or speech disabilities, or limited-English proficiency.

Pell Grants

“Students who are confined or incarcerated in juvenile justice facilities and who otherwise meet applicable eligibility criteria are eligible for Federal Pell Grants,” one of the letters says. The letter details which facilities are included in the rule, and the guidance includes a fact sheet on financial aid eligibility.

Such guidance is important because completing higher education coursework after release reduces a student’s likelihood of re-entry into the justice system, Holder said.

Guiding Principles

“Providing youths with quality educational services during incarceration is essential to keeping them engaged in their education and focused on their futures, thereby enabling them to set realistic long-term goals, including a successful return to a community school or entry to a postsecondary institution upon release,” the “guiding principles” document says.

The document outlines five principles for juvenile justice institutions:

  • A facility-wide climate that promotes education and “provides the conditions for learning” through family engagement, protection from harm, effective policies, and student supports.
  • Necessary funding to support educational opportunities for all youths that are comparable to their peers “who are not system-involved.”
  • Recruitment of staff with skills relevant to juvenile justice settings and valid credentials in focus areas (like limited English proficiency). Teaching staff should also have access to quality professional development and should be assessed through teacher evaluations.
  • “Rigorous and relevant curricula aligned with state academic and career and technical education standards that utilize instructional methods, tools, materials and practices that promote college and career-readiness.” Also, students in the system should participate in the same accountability systems as peers in traditional schools.
  • Processes and procedures that plan for students’ eventual release and coordinate between schools and agencies.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.