School Climate & Safety

Road Back to School Is Rocky for Ex-Offenders

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — April 23, 2012 10 min read
High school senior Deondre Davis flips on the trampoline at his girlfriend’s home in Cheyenne, Wyo. An ex-offender, Mr. Davis felt welcomed when he returned to his school in December. Other juvenile ex-offenders aren't so lucky.

Deondre Davis, a 17-year-old student at Cheyenne Central High School, is in re-entry right now—the period of time after leaving a correctional facility. Researchers say this is the critical fork in the road between maintaining positive momentum and recidivism for most ex-offenders.

He came home to Cheyenne, Wyo., in December after a six-month stay at Wyoming Boys School, the state’s most restrictive juvenile correctional facility. He got into trouble with the law after he tried to live on his own and became involved with drugs and alcohol, and complicated his problems by running away from the police.

Vowing to turn over a new leaf, Mr. Davis is navigating his own critical re-entry period by keeping busy: He attends high school by day, works on weekends, and spends time with a friend he trusts and his girlfriend. He played on the basketball team, which won third place in the state tournament this year, and even tried bowling. He’s now on track to graduate from high school and plans to attend college in the fall.

For many young ex-offenders, though, the transition back to school and home is not so smooth. Experts say students leaving correctional facilities face a number of barriers. The responsibilities of the various agencies and schools involved in the transition are often not clearly defined by state or local regulation, and students are left to navigate through vague procedures and cope with a lack of educational continuity without clear guidance or support.

Mr. Davis hugs his girlfriend, Alye Wagner, 14, between classes at Cheyenne Central High. A re-entry specialist from the school district works with the detention facility, the school, and the justice system to ease students back into school.

“Re-entry is a big word right now,” said Laura S. Abrams, an associate professor in the department of social welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If we want to stop the revolving door of incarceration, we need to provide young people with a leg up on how to get not just re-entered, but reintegrated—into family, into school, into the social aspects of community—and not just re-entering the same set of circumstances that led to incarceration in the first place.”

Schools are an important part of re-entry, said Wade Askew, a second-year student at Georgetown Law School, in Washington, and one of the authors of “Kept Out: Barriers to Meaningful Education in the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” a report out last week that addresses juvenile offenders’ transitions. “Schools are very uniquely positioned in a child’s life to be able to be a hub of services,” he said.

Turned Away

In interviews with 118 students, teachers, correctional officers, and other stakeholders in the lives of juvenile offenders attempting to make the transition back to public school, the authors of the Georgetown report—12 students participating in the school’s Human Rights Institute Fact-Finding Mission—found students encountering a number of barriers, some institutionalized, some personal. Though the report focuses on Los Angeles, Mr. Askew says the issues students encounter are widespread.

The researchers found schools that “simply refused to enroll students,” which the authors attributed partly to “pressure on schools due to No Child Left Behind,” the federal law that requires schools to show progress in raising student achievement. Many students involved in the justice system struggled with school even before their incarceration and may have special needs.

The students interviewed for the study discussed feeling stigmatized and unwanted. “ ‘If they don’t want me, why should I want them?’ is something I heard over and over,” Mr. Askew said.

Students might be told that they are not allowed to enroll and, “respecting and trusting schools’ authority, families erroneously believe that the administrative directives keeping their children out of school are formal, legal policies,” write the researchers.

The report also describes students unable to receive credit for courses taken in juvenile facilities, or being prohibited from attending class while waiting up to six months for transcripts and records to transfer. Students transferring back at the middle or end of a semester faced particular difficulties.

In Los Angeles, the report says, “no single actor is responsible for providing guidance and support to students navigating disjointed, confusing, and complex policies and systems.”

The report recommends several steps for easing this transition, including improved federal regulations that “incentivize enrolling these students” despite their academic challenges and better guidelines and training for those who work with the students.

‘Fish Out of Water’

As it stands, policies and plans for providing education services to incarcerated juveniles vary from state to state, from district to district, and even from facility to facility within a state.

Mr. Davis leads his girlfriend's younger brother, Colin Wagner, through cardio- and weight-training exercises.

“There’s not a lot of good, solid regulation or guidelines for the juvenile correctional system, so you get anything and everything you can imagine, from charter schools, contracts, programs operated by a juvenile agency or by the school district where the facility is located, or by the state department of education,” said Peter E. Leone, a professor of education at the University of Maryland College Park.

For instance, Ohio’s four juvenile facilities form Buckeye United School District, run by the state education department and in possession of names that don’t immediately identify them as part of the justice system. That is to avoid stigmatizing students, said Kimberlee Parsell, a spokeswoman for the Ohio youth services department.

In Arkansas, education programs are run by the division of juvenile services, and in at least one case, are contracted out to a Florida-based group.

In Florida, each facility’s school is controlled by the district in which the facility is located, which may not be the district the incarcerated juvenile formerly attended.

Maryland’s juvenile-justice department is in the process of transferring responsibility for schools to the education department, according to spokesman Jay Cleary of the state department of juvenile services.

And in Los Angeles, where the Georgetown law students conducted their study, the county—not the Los Angeles Unified School District—runs the schools.

“None of these arrangements is bad per se,” said Mr. Leone. “But within the states where they operate,” he said of schools for juvenile offenders, “they’re always fish out of water, and no one knows what to do with them.”

Those “fish out of water” schools often struggle to transfer students’ files from and back to regular public schools, for instance, or to ensure that a student is receiving all the special education services he or she needs.

In many states, the facilities do not use the same standards or curriculum as the regular public schools. That means that when students return to regular schools—as they often do—they become fish out of water themselves.

As states have developed data systems to track individual students, the technological improvements haven’t always translated to juvenile facilities.

“Florida does have a statewide record system, but for some reason it doesn’t work well for our kids,” said Joan Wimmer, the director of education for the Florida juvenile justice department. She said the department is planning to add the facilities to the state’s student-data system to ease the transfer of files and student credits.

Likewise, Arkansas is adding its juvenile facilities to its data system, said state Commissioner of Education Tom W. Kimbrell.

To make re-entry simpler, the New York City district’s facilities for juvenile offenders recently began scanning portfolios of student work to send with students back to their regular public schools, and allowing the principals of its detention-center-based schools to add credits directly to a student’s academic transcript, said Timothy Lisante, the superintendent for alternative schools and programs for the 1.1 million-student district.

Mr. Lisante said New York state also passed a “home school re-entry” bill in recent years that explicitly gives students who had been incarcerated for less than a year the right to return to their home schools.

Improving data transparency for youths with criminal records does bring one complex wrinkle: “You want better communication between schools and the justice system, but you also want to be sure to protect youth confidentiality and rights,” according to Jessica Feierman, a supervising attorney at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.

Needs Vary

Students leave facilities with a wide range of needs. For some students, returning to the public school is not academically or behaviorally appropriate. But advocates say there’s a need to make sure that when the public school is the best option, it remains an available one.

“In some places, all [re-entering] kids go to an alternative setting—but that’s just blowing smoke. It’s not done on the basis of students’ needs,” said the University of Maryland’s Mr. Leone.

Especially when alternative schools do not offer full high school diplomas and a student is on track to receive one, he said, it is a disservice to that student to not allow him or her to return.

A tassel, which Cheyenne Central High School senior Deondre Davis, 17, plans on wearing as he graduates this May, hangs from the rearview mirror of his car.

While schools are in some cases rightly wary of a risk to staff members’ and students’ safety, in other cases, a student may have been detained for a nonviolent offense. Of the 48,400 youths incarcerated in 2010, according to an email to Education Week from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “37 percent were committed for a person offense (most likely a simple assault), 25 percent for a property offense (usually a burglary), 14 percent for a technical violation of probation or paroles, 11 percent for a public-order offense, 7 percent for a drug offense, and 5 percent for a status offense.” A status offense is a crime that would not be a crime if the offender were an adult. For instance, running away, incorrigibility, and possessing alcohol as a juvenile are status offenses.

Meeting the needs of a diverse population of young offenders has led states to create re-entry or transition teams that may consist of the student, a representative from both the home district and the juvenile facility, a parole officer, and other stakeholders.

But even when regulations exist, and even when a team determines that a student should return to the school, students still encounter challenges.

Arkansas youths are supposed to have transition teams, but “the problem with that is that there are no checks or balances about whether that’s occurring. We’re looking at rewriting the rules to create more specific requirements about who’s responsible,” said Mr. Kimbrell, the Arkansas state commissioner.

In Florida, according to the state department of juvenile justice’s Ms. Wimmer, it’s done on a district-by-district basis, and in some districts, students return directly to the alternative school, which may or may not be the best fit for a student. “That blanket approach certainly isn’t based on the child’s individual needs,” she said.

A bill that would have introduced more uniformity to the state’s system did not pass during the legislature’s last session.

Deondre Davis, who returned to Cheyenne Central High School in December after serving six months in juvenile detention, changes shoes after returning home from a strength-training session. Unlike many young ex-offenders, the 17-year-old felt welcomed upon coming back to his school in Cheyenne, Wyo.

In Virginia, which has among the nation’s most-developed regulations—districts are responsible for holding transition-team meetings and re-enrolling a student within two days—rules were rewritten in 2006 after an outcry led by a mother whose son was turned away from public school.

While enforcement isn’t perfect, the rules help, according to Andrew K. Block, the director of the child-advocacy clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, whose public-interest firm was involved in developing them.

Assigning Advocates

In the absence of regulatory consistency and enforcement, students rely on dedicated adults at each step of the process.

In Wyoming, for instance, Mr. Davis’ home district, Laramie County School District #1, has two re-entry specialists, including Alex Andersen, who worked with the facility, the public school, and the justice system to help ease Mr. Davis back into school.

With all that support, the student said he felt welcomed, not rejected, by his home school. “They knew where I was at, but honestly they were proud of me for being back,” he said.

But relying on the involvement of individual parole officers and guidance counselors places young people at risk, said Mr. Block. “You need to come up with a set of rules for which people will be held accountable, because otherwise these are kids that many people won’t want to serve,” he said.

Mr. Davis said his time at the Wyoming Boys School was rough. “Some people call it doing time; … I call it days and life wasted,” he said.

“I definitely worked really hard,” he said, “to get out early and to walk with my class” at graduation.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Young Ex-Offenders Face Rocky Road Back to School

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