Education in Juvenile Detention Centers: A Q&A with School Leader Randy Farmer

Earlier this week, we released a publication looking at the education opportunities provided to the thousands of young people detained in juvenile detention each year. We found that as a general rule, the poor quality of education provided in most of these institutions makes it even harder for young people to get back on track.

That said, we acknowledge the serious research limitations surrounding juvenile facilities, including little survey data and outdated information. We could not even determine conclusively how many young people are sent to juvenile detention centers each year. So it is extremely difficult to understand any one young person’s education experience in these centers, and nearly impossible to confidently identify those detention centers that are providing high-quality services to young people and achieving positive outcomes.

We spoke with Randy Farmer, a long-time educator working in a juvenile detention facility, to paint a more complete picture of what happens in these centers and identify the good work going on that cannot be captured in a national aggregate analysis. (We also spoke with Randy in January of 2018.) There are many educators and school leaders deeply devoted to serving this population of students, and they too are frustrated by the limitations and challenges to providing high-quality education in detention centers.

Randy Farmer quote: "that for most youth in detention, the traditional classroom setting simply wasn’t working. We need to provide them with a different kind of support that then opens up the possibility of meaningful educational experiences and future success in a typical classroom."

The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Hailly: What is your high-level reaction to our newest report?

Randy: Generally speaking, the points you raise are spot on, but it’s really hard to talk about this very complicated issue, especially with an audience that might not be familiar with some of the challenges we face. There are important details that can be hard to see without working in a detention center and with these young people day in and day out. For example, it is not as though these young people just show up ready to learn and jump right back into a traditional school. They come with complex, often traumatic, personal histories, and many of them haven’t been going to school for years.

When young people have long been disconnected from schools, asking detention centers to quickly patch up and rebuild that connection is unreasonable. I get why we should want schools to be able to do that, but in so many cases, it’s just not possible. Not to mention, we’re simply not staffed or resourced to do that critical but incredibly challenging work.

Hailly: You’re right that this population of young people has long been underserved by their schools, and likely by other agencies in their communities. Could you say more about restoring their relationship with education?

Randy: If youth who were otherwise on track and doing well in school were sent briefly to detention, they would, for the most part, be able to continue their work. But from my experience, that isn’t who is in these centers. Most often [our students are] years behind academically and are missing critical course credits.

There needs to be more discussion about the challenge of educating youth in trauma; youth who do not feel safe because of a lifetime of experiences. You cannot force someone to learn. You cannot educate someone in fear. Our first job when someone comes to our facility — and unfortunately it can take a long time — is to create a more stable environment; to build trust. We have to reckon with the fact that for most youth in detention, the traditional classroom setting simply wasn’t working. We need to provide them with a different kind of support that then opens up the possibility of meaningful educational experiences and future success in a typical classroom.

Max: From your experience, are educators and staff able to deliver those kinds of supports?

Randy: I find that the first thing we have to do is [get] them [interested] in being a learner again. Doing our work well requires re-forging a meaningful connection with school. From there, once we’ve established that, we can move to looking at the credits they have, what they’re missing, and build a plan.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of professional learning specifically for educators in juvenile detention centers. We simply do not have the funding to provide that kind of support. Moreover, there are often bureaucratic constraints that make it incredibly difficult to get the training we all want and need.

And although many educators and staff working in juvenile detention centers struggle to provide the kind of services we’d want if it were our own child, it’s important to me not to suggest that there is a lack of concern or care. In my experience, this is such a hard place to work, and there are very few educators in this space who don’t want to be good at it. They’re here because they want to make a difference.

Max: What is your vision for a high-quality educational program in juvenile detention centers?

Randy: This will look different in different places and for different people. That’s part of the challenge: it has to be highly personalized. My hope is that detention can be a reset for youth who are lost, who have experienced trauma and significant disruption in their lives. Detention, if done well, can provide stability.

Detention centers can be the place where their world stops spinning like a tornado. It provides an opportunity for a young person to slow down and connect with adults who care about them and their future. [We can] identify where they are in their education and discuss how to take greater control over their education going forward. We can help show them that it’s still possible, that the future isn’t yet written.

Hailly: What do you see as the interim steps that states, districts, and juvenile detention centers should be taking to achieve that ideal?

Randy: We want to keep as many kids out of the centers as we can. At the center where I work, we were able to reduce our enrollment from around 50 to the mid-teens after working with the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. That’s important progress. But there are still going to be some young people who need to be in centers like ours. The question then is about how we can best meet their needs.

I agree with your report’s recommendation about improving record sharing. To make that real in my school would require sufficient state and or local funding to develop and sustain a common language, as well as effective data- and record-sharing collaborations between schools and juvenile detention centers.

There also needs to be more work done to build a shared understanding of the educational issues these young people face. Almost every youth is a unique combination of needs, and those needs evolve during their stay in a facility. Although it’s challenging, these decisions have to be made on a day-to-day basis, and the more shared information and resources we have, the better equipped we will be to serve these young people effectively.