Tag Archives: juvenile justice

All Means All: Q&A About Using ESSA to Improve Education in Juvenile Justice Facilities

For the first time, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes new provisions explicitly aimed at supporting students attending school in juvenile facilities. While this is exciting news, it appears that states did not actually have to satisfy those provisions in order to have their plans approved by the federal Department of Education; these provisions were not included in the Department’s official peer review process, and they were also left off the list of provisions that Department staff would review internally. In Bellwether’s own recent review of all state plans (which focused only on the accountability portions of plans), no one saw any reference to juvenile justice facilities.

In order to think through how ESSA can be used to improve education programs in juvenile justice facilities, the American Youth Policy Forum, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the National Reentry Resource Center recently collaborated on a policy brief.

I spoke with Nina Salomon at the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Jenna Tomasello at the American Youth Policy Forum to learn more about this report and what they think we still need to do in order to improve education access and quality for young people incarcerated in juvenile justice facilities.

Your new report talks about leveraging ESSA to support the education success for students in juvenile justice facilities. What are some specific ways states should be responding to ESSA in order to serve these students?

Via https://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Leveraging-the-Every-Student-Succeeds-Act-to-Improve-Outcomes-for-Youth-in-Juvenile-Justice-Facilities.pdf

ESSA aims to “provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.” For us, all means all, and we believe ESSA presents an opportunity for states to think about how to develop a statewide accountability system focused on continuous improvement that is inclusive of educational programs and schools serving students in juvenile justice facilities.

In the brief we focus specifically on Title 1, Part A as a leverage point in ESSA, but Title 1, Part D also has new and revised provisions to improve education outcomes of students in juvenile justice facilities. In our conversations with states, and our cursory review of state ESSA plans, it does not seem that juvenile justice stakeholders were at the table for ESSA planning conversations, and that ESSA plans seem to reflect this lack of involvement.

(Bellwether note: States that did use the optional federal template were asked to provide information about the Title I, Part D provisions specific to juvenile justice facilities. A summary and analysis of those responses is forthcoming from our team. Outside of that section, most states did not offer any additional information about education programs in juvenile justice facilities. ) Continue reading

Disproportionate School Discipline Is Not Separate From Justice System Disparities

In December of 2017, the United States Civil Rights Commission held a public briefing addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, paying special attention to students of color and students with disabilities and the impact of school suspensions and expulsions. There’s a debate centering around whether bias is at play in school discipline. (You can watch the archived livestream here.)

As usual, the Commission then opened a window for written public comments. I wrote a memo to the Commission to help place the conversation about disproportionate school discipline into context: school discipline is just one manifestation of a larger and well-studied criminal justice phenomenon. (This blog posts summarizes my comments; if you want to read my full memo, click here.)

Rates of disparate school discipline for students of color and students with disabilities parallel the disparate local and national rates of arrest, incarceration, and executions of people of color and people with disabilities. It is reasonable to infer that that the identified causes of those disparities are likely to be similar to — if not the same as — the differential rates of school-based discipline.

Efforts to claim that questions about school discipline are new and mysterious ignore the wealth of available data and expertise going back as far as the 1950s. None of these questions are novel, and the feigned confusion about how we could possibly know when and where bias against students of color and students with disabilities affects the imposition of punitive discipline are disingenuous.

Within the research, it is undisputed that the juvenile and adult justice systems come into more frequent contact with people of color and people with disabilities than their white and non-disabled counterparts. It is also undisputed that the consequences at each point of the interaction are more severe for people of color and people with disabilities. Here are some examples:

Bias is notoriously difficult to document, particularly where researchers are not recording data themselves but instead relying on the records kept by those whose behavior is under scrutiny. But a study in Cook County, Illinois, for example, found that when controlling for all other variables, judges demonstrated racial bias: “We find evidence of significant interjudge disparity in the racial gap in incarceration rates, which provides support for the model in which at least some judges treat defendants differently on the basis of their race. The magnitude of this effect is substantial.”

It is impossible to find a credible study that concludes that the difficulty of ascertaining the degree to which bias influences disparities means that no further investigation would be appropriate. In fact, those who study the issue consistently conclude that the undisputed statistical disparities point to a need for deeper investigation of specific systems, more complete data collection, and additional targeted research.

An attempt to frame the very same phenomenon when it appears in schools as the result of applying unbiased policies and practices ignores decades of relevant research. Schools are integral to, not separate from, our civic experience. Every person — child and adult — who shows up in a school building also exists outside of that building and within our larger civic context, a context that includes our law enforcement and justice systems. Discussions about when and how statistical evidence of disproportionality should trigger an investigation cannot be had in a vacuum; they should, instead, be grounded in the substantial body of research and evidence outside the schoolhouse walls.

Many of those who believe that the statistical differences in student discipline can be explained away by out-of-school factors or by objectively different student behavior have been pushing to nullify a 2014 guidance letter issued jointly by the Departments of Justice and Education. That letter made clear that significant disproportionality in the administration of suspensions and expulsions could lead to a federal investigation.

Evidence of disproportionality in the administration of punitive discipline strategies — both at school and in the justice system — is not sufficient to identify bias. It is, however, a leading indicator of where bias may be found if one were to investigate. Additionally, all of the existing research shows that a targeted inquiry is the only way to determine whether bias is, or is not, the underlying cause of the disparity.

The Commission is expected to review all of the briefing materials and public comments and release a public report, as it typically does. These reports are non-binding on government agencies but may include commentary about pending legislation or suggest new guidelines. I expect that this report will make a specific recommendation about rescinding or maintaining the 2014 joint guidance package on school discipline. Where bias does lead to differential treatment, federal civil rights protections must be enforced and constitutional and statutory protections against discrimination are implicated.

Three Things to Know about Courts, Schools, and Discipline

About 2.8 million k-12 students are suspended from school in a given year. And about 150,000 are expelled. Both suspension and expulsions are forms of “exclusionary school discipline,” the catch-all term for school discipline policies that remove students from their classrooms or schools.

On this subject, The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges just published a new report: The Intersection of Juvenile Courts and Exclusionary School Discipline. It’s a helpful primer on the history of suspension and expulsion policies coupled with advice for those in schools and in the judiciary working to build partnerships to better support students who misbehave in school.

There are three big takeaways from this report:

  1. Most exclusionary discipline policies can be traced back to 1994’s Gun-Free School Zones Act. That law requires all schools receiving federal funds to develop policies for referring incidents of weapons on campus to law enforcement. Experts cited in this report believe this law has not reduced school violence and has, in fact, made communities less safe.
  2. Exclusionary school discipline costs states millions of dollars a year. Spending even just  30% of that on supportive diversion programs — like community-based intervention or mentoring — cuts costs and keeps kids on track towards productive community participation. (The report provides examples of several successful models.)
  3. In many communities, juvenile court judges have used their credibility and influence to take on leadership roles in supporting schools to minimize the contact that young people — especially students of color and students with disabilities — have with law enforcement and the justice system. Other judges can do this by convening cross-agency teams, promoting alternative approaches, and encouraging policy change.  

While none of these points are major revelations, it’s helpful to see them lined up together in order to better illustrate the complex inter-agency dynamics that continue to hold these harmful policies in place.

Three Takeaways from the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium

Last week, I spent a day with hundreds of teachers who work in Arizona’s prisons, jails, and juvenile justice facilities talking about the ways they can best support their students and continue to improve the ways that their systems operate. After presenting at the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium, an annual convening and professional development event for teachers in secure schools from across the state, I found myself thinking about three key takeaways:

As in all education systems, needlessly complex bureaucracy interferes with effective teaching

Like conventional public education, most correctional education is managed by state agencies and sometimes delegated or contracted to other providers. Correctional education, however, has no consistent governance framework. Where most states have a state office of education that oversees local education agencies (LEAs), education in secure facilities is managed in nearly every conceivable way. For example, a state justice agency might have its own education division that is a complete system unto itself. Or the justice agency might have a state statutory obligation to delegate the education programming to an LEA. Or the state may determine that the geographic school district is obligated to provide education services to all secure facilities within its boundaries.

The most complicated systems to navigate are the ones in which kids cross agency lines as they move through the adjudication process. Arizona is one of those states. As kids move from arrest to confinement to reentry, they’ll likely attend several different schools managed by different agencies or offices. This means that education programming is often imperfectly aligned over the long term and that kids risk missing essential skills instruction or losing out on accrued credit hours. For teachers, they’re doing their best to meet the needs of the kids who show up each day in their classrooms, but they often don’t know who that will be (or how long they’ll stay).

The people who work in these schools are hungry for relevant professional development

I lost track of how many times a teacher told me how grateful they were to have the opportunity to get professional development from people who understand the constraints that they work within. These aren’t the kinds of restrictions that you might assume: teachers are far more frustrated by the loss of instructional time from frequent interruptions than they are about student misbehavior.

Today, most education training is focused on conventional community-based schools, and it doesn’t feel relevant for teachers in secure facilities. And most of the training that’s designed with them in mind is safety and compliance-focused; there’s very little offered to help them improve their practice as educators.

Teachers everywhere do the best they can in the circumstances that they’re in

I am always so incredibly impressed with the commitment and resilience of teachers who work in justice facilities. I spoke with a group over lunch who laughed that the response “But that doesn’t make sense!” should be the unofficial guiding theme of the policies that regulate their work. For example, Dante’s The Inferno is banned in school libraries, but the collective work of The Divine Comedy isn’t; Teachers hold statutory special education responsibilities under federal law for students disabilities but often only find out about a change in a student’s education program after a student has been moved out of their classroom; and teachers run their classrooms at the mercy of the secure care staff who have full discretion to pull students out of class or even to close school for the entire day.

But you know what I never heard at the symposium? I never heard a group of teachers complain about their students. Teachers that I talked to hold so much hope and optimism for the potential of their students, and despite many institutional incentives to become complacent, they still bring their best effort to their classrooms every day.

Will Educators Lead Incarceration Reform?

Hundreds of thousands of people are released from state or federal prison every year, and nine million more leave local jails.  On the whole, very few people serve life sentences, and at least 95% of prisoners ultimately return home. 

In 2016, the Obama administration designated the last week of April as “National Reentry Week,” an attempt to bring public attention to the challenges facing people who return to their communities after incarceration. It doesn’t look like the Trump administration is upholding the designation — the Department of Justice’s site was archived — but last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unexpectedly visited a youth correctional facility. There she spoke about the role that high-quality education programs play in supporting successful transitions back to community life.

It’s time that educators took the lead in creating substantive policies to support previously incarcerated people as they rejoin their communities. For young people, the move from a secure school back to a community-based program is a crucial moment when students are at risk of losing their earned course credits, experiencing barriers to enrollment, and dropping out entirely. I’ve recently shared data on the importance of this transition. And, for the first time in history, this moment is called out in federal education law: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to develop plans to support that transition. And not only is it in the law,  it even made it into the final federal template:

Screenshot via U.S. Department of Education ESSA template.

While this is big, we should also recognize that progress could be bolder; this section will not be evaluated in the official peer review process, and the guidance says simply that it “will be reviewed by staff at the Department.”

And the news coming out of states suggests that they aren’t taking full advantage of this opportunity either. Of the plans submitted so far, most describe goals and strategies for transition plans that are cursory and vague (or both). One describes a committee that is planning to develop a plan. Another gives staffing levels that are woefully insufficient to meet the need — one transition specialist for an entire agency. Almost all describe a lack of good assessment tools to properly track achievement. Of course, doing something is better than nothing. But the problem has rarely been that states are truly doing nothing, it’s that what they are doing doesn’t work. Researchers estimate that upwards of 60 percent of young people who are incarcerated will never successfully return to school.

This opens a unique opportunity for state education advocates to push their education leaders to do more. DeVos’s visit, coupled with the explicit language in ESSA and in the federal template, suggests that this discussion — long relegated to the dusty corners of corrections reform — may have finally, firmly found a foothold in federal education policy.