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Schools and justice system fail troubled teens

Report shows inadequacies in juvenile justice facility education programs


Schools and justice system fail troubled teens

When Rubén Austria left New York City to study at Cornell University, he didn’t plan to return. But when he realized the opportunities his education had opened up for him, he knew he wanted to help other youth have those same opportunities. After graduating, he took a job with a ministry running an after-school program at a South Bronx high school.

But his students were disappearing. At-risk students in his program quit coming, and Austria didn’t know why. When he saw them outside of school, they explained their absences: after spending time in a juvenile detention or a placement facility, their school wouldn’t let them come back.

Education advocacy nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners released a report in June showing that youth in juvenile justice facilities do not receive access to adequate education, despite laws guaranteeing their rights to education while incarcerated.

Education programs for students in juvenile justice facilities vary by state, or even by district. Austria said that, in New York City, students that enter the juvenile justice system—even for just a few days—are enrolled in the district’s Passages Academy program specifically for students in the system, automatically disenrolling them from their home district. Until a 2004 lawsuit, some schools refused to quickly reenroll these students after their release. The New York City Department of Education settled that lawsuit in 2011, and students were permitted to immediately reenroll after release.

According to the Bellwether report, juvenile justice facilities nationwide housed 36,479 youth on an average day in late 2019. That number doesn’t include youth waiting in custody for a court hearing, leading The Sentencing Project to estimate the number could be undercounted by 80 percent. Students in the juvenile justice system are more likely to have unmet needs or traumatic backgrounds. Black students are incarcerated at almost three times the rate of the general population. According to a 2021 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 57 percent of incarcerated youth committed nonviolent offenses such as damaging property or disturbing public order.

The Bellwether report found that one of the biggest issues facing education programs in juvenile justice facilities was fragmentation. Different agencies might be responsible for running, funding, and holding programs to account. These compartmentalized systems make it hard for education officials to monitor a program’s effectiveness.

The report highlighted other education-related challenges in facilities. Student records can take longer to arrive. Class rosters can change often, especially in short-term facilities, as both teachers and students often don’t know how long the student will be in the class. Teachers may teach multiple grade levels, with students divided by cohort or even by court order due to safety concerns. School days can be disrupted by meetings with probation officers, court dates, or lockdowns due to fights. In 2014, one survey found that incarcerated students did not have internet access in almost half of U.S. states.

David Domenici founded BreakFree Education in 2012, after several years’ experience as founding principal of Maya Angelou Academy, a school inside a youth facility in Washington, D.C. With BreakFree, Domenici works with schools, districts, and agencies wanting to improve their programs for incarcerated youth.

Domenici stressed the challenges of working within fragmented systems. Maybe the local school district heads up the school in a pretrial facility, while the state is in charge of education at a post-adjudication facility. District superintendents often juggle many high-priority issues, and the needs of a pretrial facility with a few dozen students at one time can be overlooked. Because students are at pretrial facilities for shorter periods, even a 30-occupant facility may see over 200 students in one year. When a student goes to a post-adjudication facility, often outside of their home community, their education transfers to whichever agency or district that runs that school.

Some studies show that only about half of incarcerated students go back to school after release. When students do try to return to their home schools, Domenici said they often face pushback from school officials who either hesitate to honor credits earned in a facility program or refuse to accept a student back. Some states have cracked down on this, Domenici said, but the problem persists: “Unless you have … stuff written into law and really good leadership, these sorts of things happen at multiple levels—subtle statements, not subtle statements.”

Domenici said plenty of opportunities exist for nonprofit involvement in extracurricular activities like creative writing, art, or dance.

In 2009, Rubén Austria started Community Connections for Youth, a nonprofit connecting local organizations with youth at risk of incarceration in the South Bronx.

Austria said that many faith-based organizations know how to do prison ministry, but too often they stop with Bible studies. While Austria agreed that these programs can be helpful, he believes that churches are missing out on an opportunity to meet extracurricular needs or help youth transition back home after their release.

“They kind of know how to do prison ministry, they know how to go in and put on a church service for kids,” Austria said of faith-based programs. “They’re often not quite sure what to do when kids are coming home.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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