Tag Archives: juvenile justice

It’s Time to Stop Overlooking Juvenile Justice Education Policy

Just as juvenile justice education programs are commonly overlooked in mainstream educational equity conversations, they are also left behind in state education policy. The consequences for students are dire.

Juvenile justice education programs, as Bellwether Education Partners defines them, serve students in the court-ordered custody of a local or state agency. Settings can include short-term detention centers, long-term secure facilities, residential treatment centers, or other publicly and privately run facilities. The best estimates tell us that nearly a quarter of a million students were detained or committed to such facilities in 2019, where they had extremely limited access to education opportunities of all kinds including online learning, differentiated coursework, tutoring, dual-credit courses, career technical education, and work-based learning.

Our latest report finds that the governance, accountability, and finance policy designs are convoluted, inconsistent, and in some cases entirely absent in juvenile justice education programs. We reviewed state policy in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico and uncovered what advocates have long suspected: a mess of dizzying policies, contradictory regulations, and exceedingly complex statutes. Despite the best efforts of well-meaning and devoted educators, these incoherent policies mean that the vast majority of juvenile justice education programs fall short of anything resembling a “school.”

Students in juvenile justice education programs are unlikely to be offered education opportunities aligned with their needs while locked up — and more often than not, they will never enroll in school again when they’re released. 

If state leaders structure policy reforms around coherence within and among these three policies (governance, accountability, and finance), they can meaningfully improve the education provided to students in their care.

Governance

Governance policies define who is responsible for providing (or ensuring the provision of) education services to youth in custody. In at least 26 states, the agency responsible for providing education services in local detention centers is not the same as the agency responsible for education in state-run facilities. In some states, one agency is responsible for providing direct instruction in a juvenile facility, while another agency controls the funding. In California, only youth detained or committed for offenses considered most serious or violent are held at the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice facility, which operates separately from facilities run locally by county boards of education. 

A class-action lawsuit from 2014 shows how inconsistent governance policies can lead to finger pointing and ultimately the abdication of responsibility for student learning. In Contra Costa County, California, the county probation agency was responsible for discipline policy but the county office of education was responsible for educational services. The two entities disagreed on who was responsible for education in restrictive security programs, leaving teachers unable to provide students in solitary confinement with the same modality, quantity, or quality of instruction as their peers. 

Even trying to find and confirm governance policies for our research illustrated the problem: we had to call numerous offices in individual states to cross check competing information. 

Accountability

Accountability policies determine how programs are evaluated and what happens when they aren’t delivering. In traditional districts, agencies use assessment and attendance data, teacher evaluations, school visits, and other data-collection strategies to ensure schools provide a high-quality education. Each education agency then defines the interventions that follow when a program does not meet expectations.

To measure school success, education agencies need to decide on their “measuring stick,” or the kind of data they will evaluate. While traditional educational policy conversations still grapple with these questions and acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, juvenile justice education programs are light years behind altogether.

Given the governance structures described above, it’s no surprise that juvenile justice education programs interact with many government agencies and are often required to submit data to offices with competing and incompatible goals, requirements, and processes.

Imagine this common reality: Mr. Dewan has students at a 9th-grade and 12th-grade level in his classroom. Some stay for a few days or weeks, while others stay for a few months — he never has the same group twice. Most of his students arrive without academic transcripts, so he relies on their recollection of past coursework and grades while awaiting prior records from any number of institutions. Over time, some students get shuffled to another facility without notice, while others attend a mandatory court date and never come back. Mr. Dewan doesn’t always know when a student has left the program, so he cannot plan for assessments in advance. The security or probation officers on staff periodically come in and remove a student from Mr. Dewan’s classroom, even when he has no concerns about safety. 

Having worked in and with such constraints, we respect how difficult it is to collect data, measure student and school success, and implement effective interventions. That said, a necessary component of any accountability system is defining how programs will be evaluated and what happens when they aren’t delivering for students. Our survey indicates that unlike nearly every other kind of education setting, most states have not defined in statute how juvenile justice education service providers are held accountable. 

Finance

Finance policies explain how states allocate funding to the agencies responsible for operating juvenile justice education programs. The people responsible for overseeing or operating these programs are best positioned to know where funding is needed the most. 

But our research shows that time and time again, the agency in control of finance is not the same as the one held accountable for results, creating a disincentive to allocate the resources necessary for high-quality programming. The greater the disconnect between finance and governance, the greater the chance that funding is not allocated for the right things. 

Beyond defining agency responsibility, there is little transparency about dollar amounts that actually make it to these educational programs. We know very little about how much states allocate for per-pupil funding in juvenile justice education programs. The reality is that students generally arrive at juvenile justice education programs lagging behind academically, in addition to potentially having significant unmet mental, behavioral, and physical health needs. State finance policies must take this reality into consideration and fund juvenile justice education programs accordingly. 

For this population of students, the stakes are too high not to get the fundamentals right. A child in the custody of a state agency is entrusted to the care of the government, creating a heightened moral responsibility (and arguably a legal one) for policymakers to provide that student with the highest-quality educational opportunities.

Read our new report here or view this resource to find out your specific state’s current policies. 

Designing From the Margins Toolkit: Three Ways to Solve Problems Facing Young People

Young people facing disruptions to their education need support and guidance to meet their goals. But too often, the systems meant to support young people at the toughest moments of their lives end up frustrating and burdening them as they navigate a complex bureaucracy. Leaders working within these systems can see the challenges young people face, but they get stuck, because creating change within and across large organizations is difficult.   

A different approach to problem solving can help communities get unstuck within and across schools, nonprofits, and other child-serving organizations. This week, Bellwether released Designing From the Margins: Tools and Examples for Practitioners to Address Fragmentation and Build Equity Into Systems Design. The downloadable toolkit draws on Design Methods for Education Policy and is aligned with our Continuous Improvement in Schools Workbook, but is created specifically for local leaders who might be new to tackling human-centered design from start to finish. It includes tangible examples and facilitation strategies for collaborative problem-solving processes based on our work with communities across the country. 

Designing From the Margins centers young people and families with the most serious and concentrated needs to make inclusive solutions for everyone. By taking this approach, problem solvers focus on equity from the start, and focus on the voices and perspectives of those experiencing problems directly. 

Here are three ways schools, foster care systems, homeless shelters, and health care providers, among others, can use the toolkit:

1. Engage Young People and Families in Identifying Problems

What problems need solving right now? In order to answer this question, you should go to the people experiencing issues directly. This toolkit focuses on improving systems serving young people. In our work, we used techniques like empathy interviews to hear from young people about their experiences and unmet needs. We prioritized young people with severe disruptions in their lives and education, such as incarceration or homelessness, in order to hear how systems served (or failed) those with the greatest needs. The toolkit can help you create a plan to collect these perspectives and reflect on them in a structured and coherent way. 

2. Structure a Collaborative Problem-Solving Process

Organizations serving young people often operate under great stress and uncertainty. This can make collaboration difficult. For example, a leader of a community nonprofit might consider another organization to be a competitor for funding or enrollment, rather than a potential collaborator serving overlapping groups of young people and families. The Designing From the Margins Toolkit gives tangible examples of ways to build a productive, cross-organizational working group that centers on the needs of young people, which includes building relationships among participants who might not work together frequently. 

3. Plan for Better Implementation Through Monitoring and Continuous Improvement 

Even great plans can fall victim to incomplete or insufficient implementation. The problem-solving cycle described in Designing From the Margins includes an emphasis on concrete implementation plans, with clear metrics and owners each step of the way, along with a framework for implementing continuous improvement cycles of monitoring and evaluation once solutions are put in place. 

Click here to read and download Bellwether’s Designing From the Margins Toolkit, and visit Bellwether’s Lost by Design website to learn more.

What could have happened to Richard Solitro Jr.?

Photo courtesy of Kat Wilcox for Pexels

At Bellwether Education Partners, my work focuses primarily on the places in which schools come into contact with other child-serving systems. In doing so, I spend a lot of time thinking about how schools can better support students who have come into contact with these systems, including the courts and law enforcement.

Four weeks ago, I watched the police shoot and kill a man. 

I am a civil rights attorney by training and education advocate by trade. I have spent much of my professional life examining systemic inequity for young people who are farthest from opportunity: those who experience disruptions to their education pathways because of experiences like a placement in foster care, an experience with homelessness, or an incarceration. Many of the students I talk to have experienced the negative consequences of policing in their own lives.

I can rattle off statistics about the effects of aggressive policing and police violence shootings in America. And I can point you to the research that demonstrates that this approach — an approach that does not keep anyone any safer — comes at a huge cost. It is just one slice of the violent pie in America’s punitive systems.

I have also experienced the consequences of gun violence in my own family. Both my father and my godson were shot and killed in separate incidents, decades apart.

But none of this prepared me for what I saw on the afternoon of April 24. 

I was driving home from an errand and found myself suddenly stopped behind a police car as two officers confronted another driver less than a block ahead of me. Within seconds, I watched as the police fired three shots at an unarmed man in distress and killed him. To be clear, I am not the important part of this story, I am just the one who is here to tell it. 

And race is also part of this story, even though it is rendered invisible: While white people have been able to remain largely insulated from the direct effects of police violence, Richard Solitro Jr., the man the police killed, was white, as am I. If he had been Black, as many victims of police violence are, this would not be any less awful. And it is not less significant because he was white.

It was a destabilizing, traumatic event to witness but, of course, not an uncommon one. On average, police in America kill three men a day. Each one of those people has a family and most of those events have witnesses. The twin horrors of what I saw are both the tragic and unnecessary loss of Richard Solitro Jr. and the unavoidable acceptance of the fact that my experience of having seen it happen is nothing special. The police kill an average of a thousand people a year and so I probably did not even witness the only fatal police shooting in the U.S. that day.

For white people, for professionals with degrees and laptop jobs, nice cars, or comfortable homes in “good” neighborhoods, it is always tempting to take a detached view of horrible things, that they are tragedies happening somewhere else. The reality is quite different and much less reassuring: We are all at risk of experiencing police violence and unless we actively work against it, we are all implicated in its perpetuation. People of color (especially Black men) and trans people have been saying this for years. A “community affected by police violence” is no outlier when the risk of it happening to you — or in front of you — is inescapable no matter where you are. When police have lethal power that is effectively unchecked, some of us can be safer than others, but no one can be completely safe. If the police decide to kill someone in front of you, they will. If the police decide to kill you, they will. And with rare exception, they will get away with it.

Two days after this happened, we published “Investing in Healthy Transitions to Adulthood: The Role of Schools.” This piece was long in the works but it took on renewed urgency for me. Richard Solitro Jr. was in desperate need of mental health services. His family had been asking for help for years but none ever came, and all he got was the barrel of a gun. 

This story is not new. What we can ask now is what could have happened if Richard Solitro Jr. had lived in a country where we put needs first, rather than consequences, and focused our investments on the evidence-based programs that we know work? 

Student Absences Get Worse When Juvenile Justice Systems Step In: A Q&A With Josh Weber

The Council of State Governments Justice Center recently published a new report sharing their findings from a study of South Carolina’s probation system and probation’s negative effect on student attendance. I asked the report’s author, Josh Weber, a few questions about the goals of the study and what he thinks it means for schools. I also asked his thoughts about the impact of distance learning in light of the recent news about young people being referred to law enforcement for not attending online classes. 

What motivated the research behind this report? What were you hoping to better understand?

Nationwide, juvenile arrests and court referrals have declined substantially over the last decade, but referrals for truancy have remained largely stable and actually increased to over 60,000 in 2018. In addition, over 288,000 young people are placed on some form of probation every year, at least some of whom are placed under system supervision primarily due to concerns about their school attendance. Likewise, for almost all youth placed on probation, daily school attendance is a mandatory condition of their supervision, and youth can be incarcerated for their failure to comply. 

We conducted this study because we felt that most jurisdictions were not questioning whether the use of the juvenile justice system to intervene in youth’s education in these ways is an effective approach. We wanted to understand whether being placed on probation actually led to improvements in youth’s school attendance.   

What is the key takeaway for schools and educators? Is there something they should be doing differently? Continue reading

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. Continue reading