School Behind Bars: A Q&A with Nebraska’s Randy Farmer

There are nearly 2,600 schools across the country providing education to young people who are held in secure justice facilities. One of them is a short-term facility in Nebraska called the Pathfinder Education Program, and I spoke with its educational director, Randy Farmer, to learn more about what his job is like and what he wishes more people knew about how best to support students like his.

Pathfinder provides education services for young people detained for legal offenses in Lancaster County, Nebraska and awaiting court decisions about their need for services. The program is operated by the Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska, and Farmer’s role is similar to that of a school principal. He has worked with the National Partnership for Juvenile Services (NPJS) the last twelve years as an advisor, board member, and Education Council president, and he has worked with the Nebraska Department of Education on a standing committee to improve educational services for youth in out-of-home placements.

Tell us a bit about your role and what you do. What’s a typical day like?

The Pathfinder Education Program supports a unique and diverse population of youth who are experiencing serious traumatic life events. We offer educational services as an opportunity to renew a love of learning and provide a continuation of their path toward graduation, and we follow up with transition supports in collaboration with the community and juvenile justice system. These are bright, curious, and creative young people — they can be a tremendous asset to society when given an appropriate and supportive way to positively connect with their school and community.

I work with a wonderful staff of experienced and dedicated professionals, and a school district willing to provide exceptional support.

A typical day starts at a 6 a.m. morning briefing with detention staff. I then spend time responding to emails, organizing daily activities for the program, and greeting the arriving staff and students. Throughout the day I respond to youth who are disengaged from the classrooms, and problem solve with teachers and officers to find ways to return them to school. I visit with teachers, observe classes, and offer support where needed. If things are running smoothly, I can find time for data collection, budgeting, program design, and professional development, as well as district appraisal requirements.

What would you say has most surprised you about working in a secure facility?

I’m always surprised by the complexity of balancing the needs of safety and security and the desire to create inspiring, challenging, and engaging classrooms. This is a daily challenge of permission, understanding, collaboration, and decision making. We strive to inspire and energize young people, but security expectations and the need to control materials, movement, and emotions can offer a challenge for classroom and lesson creation.

What do you wish that more people knew about your school? Your teachers? Your students?

Our school must focus on each student’s unique needs each day. The needs are constantly changing with each student’s life developments, our continually changing population, and events within the facility. Finding what students need to do, and then discovering if they can do it, is a continuous process. Compassion fatigue and the emotional toll on teachers are both very real, but the teachers at Pathfinder are experts at dealing with these issues, and they take care of each other.

I am amazed each and every day with the incredible young people we serve. Their stories of challenging backgrounds can be overwhelming to hear, but their resilience — their ability to come to school and laugh, work, and be positive in spite of all they face — is a testament to the human spirit. They are kids with hopes and dreams, searching for a path.

Finally, if you could make one policy change to improve the education experiences of the students you serve, what would it be?

There is a tendency to categorize the youth involved in the juvenile justice system, and to make long-term predictions for their outcomes. In my work over the last 28 years, I have personally seen that we have no way of knowing which students will succeed and which students will continue to struggle. The variables of brain development, trauma, life experiences, and supports come together in an ever-changing mix. We just need to be there at the right time, with the right solutions, to allow the student the opportunity to change when they are able to do it.

I think that anyone who works with these youth needs to have a strong foundation in three areas: (1) adolescent brain development and how it influences behavior, (2) the effects of trauma and how it influences behavior, and (3) behavior programs that separate the behavior from the child and that address the holistic process of behavior development

For our work here at Pathfinder, these things are critical. Our students are not adults, and they do not have the same logical reasoning, impulse control, or predictive skills as adults. These students have also suffered significant and multiple traumatic events. The related triggers for behavior are extremely complex, and must be a consideration when we address their behaviors. And we must utilize a behavior program that addresses behavior separate from who the the child is as a person.

Kids shouldn’t be defined by the worst thing they have done. We recognize that punishment does not change long-term behavior. To change behavior we must help students address the thinking errors related to the behavior, and help them understand how that error impacts their community.

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