School Climate & Safety Commentary

Punishing Young Offenders Twice

By Lynette Tannis — January 27, 2014 5 min read

There is plenty of debate today about which students need more resources and support to be academically and behaviorally successful.

We weigh services for urban vs. suburban students, and, less frequently, young people in rural settings. Since charter schools came into existence, there has been great debate about traditional public schools vs. charters. At the same time, the No Child Left Behind Act has led us to compare high-performing and low-performing schools.

Despite all the talk, however, our nation’s most educationally neglected youths continue to be invisible to all but a few.

Policymakers make connections between below-grade-level reading by the end of 3rd grade and difficulties in later life. Many advocates, in turn, champion efforts to assist and give voice to the young people on the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

Gregory Ferrand for Education Week

But what about the learning needs of the young people who are incarcerated or under the purview of the justice system? Far fewer people consider those.

The reality is clear: Children who are unable to read by the end of the 3rd grade and who have poor school experiences are at risk for dropping out of school and other negative behaviors. Those risks intensify when poverty is part of the equation. Studies have estimated that nearly 75 percent of incarcerated youths are high school dropouts.

Today, there are approximately 2,700 juvenile-justice facilities in the United States, with more than 150,000 incarcerated young people age 18 and younger.

Research points to an overrepresentation of young people with disabilities in the nation’s juvenile-justice facilities. According to a January 2011 “Juvenile Justice Education Fact Sheet” from the National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Children and Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or At Risk, only 65 percent of residential juvenile facilities offer education programs to all of their incarcerated young people, and only 46 percent of incarcerated youths with learning disabilities report receiving the appropriate special education services.

When we say ... no child should be left behind, we must apply it to all children, even those who broke the law."

Here in the United States, if these children were living in the free world, they (and their parents) would be accountable to compulsory school attendance laws; in other words, the law would tell them to go to school or face legal consequences. However, once they’ve lost their freedom, it appears that these students also lose out on the opportunity for a much-needed education.

How do we expect any child to ever be truly free if he is not challenged and supported to be a lifelong learner? How do we expect our incarcerated children to someday be a force for good in their communities and society at large if punishing them for the crimes they committed also means denying them the right to a high-quality education?

Policymakers and educators can make a difference. Policymakers can work hard to ensure that each state mandates that all children are entitled to a high-quality education, including those who are being held in the juvenile-justice system. This is the case in states like Florida, where Statute 1003.52 (1a) explicitly says: “It is the goal of the legislature that youth in the juvenile-justice system continue to be allowed the opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.”

In many of our states, the local school district where the juvenile-justice facility is located is responsible for providing or contracting out educational services for young inmates.

Many would argue that, even in our traditional school settings, often the least-equipped educators are assigned to teach students with the greatest needs. This is no different for juvenile-justice educators who are, in some instances, placed at these facilities without a say in the matter, and then not provided with the tools or resources to help the young people they are supposed to teach.

Although the nation’s first juvenile court was established in 1899 in Cook County, Ill., there have been no studies informing juvenile-justice educators’ effective practices for teaching multiple-level math courses to students who may range in age from 13 to 18, all in the same classroom. And, I’ve found only four studies examining reading instruction in these conditions.

When we say that education matters and no child should be left behind, we must apply it to all children, even those who broke the law. We cannot throw away the keys to a better future by denying these children the right to a good education. We must fully equip our juvenile-justice educators with the proper training and support to be successful in these unique alternative educational settings.

Every child deserves a high-quality education, no matter what they look like, where they live, whether they are incarcerated or free. Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners must continue to work diligently to ensure every child is provided with a strong educational foundation. We must also try to establish effective resources and safety nets within our communities to lessen the number of young people we incarcerate and ensure school discipline policies are appropriate and fair. (New guidance from the U.S. departments of Justice and Education on ensuring that discipline policies are drafted and applied without bias against racial or ethnic groups are a step in the right direction.)

Moreover, until the number of youths we incarcerate becomes zero, we must no longer neglect those who have made poor choices and are serving time as a consequence. One day soon they will return to our communities, hopefully equally or better educated than when they left.

If we want society to win, if we want to improve our nation, we must, at a minimum, provide all of our nation’s children with a high-quality education.

We must seize the opportunity to capture the hearts and minds of our nation’s incarcerated youth while many of their distractions from the outside have been removed.

While it might be easy to forget those kids we don’t see, or perhaps the young person who in some way harmed us, our families, or society, we must not lose hope in what we’ve all been led to believe—that education is the key. If this is the case, we must use this important tool to free the minds and lives of our nation’s most disenfranchised and educationally neglected youth.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Twice Punished: Education’s ‘Invisible’ Incarcerated Youths


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