Children in the justice system face towering impediments to their legal right to education, often hindering the development of thousands of the nation’s most vulnerable and underserved students.
The lack of consistent and uniform policies, along with a dearth of available data, conceal how – or if – young people learn in juvenile detention facilities.
“I often like to say to administrators who are in charge of these places – particularly when I visit a facility that’s really bad – that the educational services and programs here are not something you would tolerate for any of your own children,” said Peter Leone, a professor at the University of Maryland who has spent decades evaluating and advising educational facilities in juvenile centers across the United States.
Advocates say education for incarcerated kids isn’t comparable, let alone equal, to public education. Many say it’s nearly impossible to provide good education in an environment where children often come to class in restraints, complete homework in their cell and are closely monitored by staff members armed with tasers.
“It’s something else,” Leone said. “Kids routinely do not get homework. Routinely, they can’t take books back to their unit. Routinely, there is no quiet time in the evening to do homework.”
Multiple studies have shown that disruptions in education, irregular classroom hours and uneven learning materials also feed into a lack of academic achievement for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated youth.
Additional hurdles, such as the fragmented ecosystem of juvenile justice as a whole and a widespread belief that young offenders aren’t deserving of education, often delay improvements, said David Domenici, executive director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, a nonprofit that runs educational programs in youth facilities in 41 states.
The failure to prioritize education in detention centers also feeds into this problem, Domenici said, adding that, in many juvenile facilities, the “school becomes sort of a throwaway school.”
A fractured system, a ‘tyranny of low expectations’
After getting into a fight over his ninth grade girlfriend in San Mateo, California, Nicholas Jasso’s freshman and sophomore years of high school consisted of a month in juvenile hall followed by a year in a high security, state-run school in Northern California.
“The education I received while I was under the supervision of the state was terrible,” said Jasso, now 23 and studying at UCLA. “I think it was probably more detrimental than anything.”
When he eventually got to college, Jasso said he spent a large portion of his first semester up all night and glued to his desk, learning how to write papers or developing study habits.
Researchers have found that preexisting risk factors, including negative feelings toward school and previous academic failure, pose additional challenges to teaching young people effectively in detention centers.
Low aspirations, truancy and a history of suspensions, expulsions or dropping out are also risk factors typically found in kids involved in the juvenile system, according to a 2019 review of education in the juvenile justice system by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, leaving them predisposed to brush off education.
Children who are English language learners or have learning or behavioral disabilities are all the more likely to fail, experts say.
The notion that failure in school justifies poor learning conditions in the system is what juvenile detention education expert Peter Leone dubs “the tyranny of low expectations.”
“The refrain you often hear is, ‘Well, you know, these kids probably failed pretty badly when they were in the public schools,’” Leone said. “That is true, but it puts the onus on the kid as opposed to saying, ‘What is it about these systems that fail to engage a chunk of kids?’”
Federal investigations into juvenile facilities have shown that incarcerated children, particularly those with learning disabilities or on individualized learning plans, received inadequate education, according to formal complaints and findings from the U.S. Department of Justice.
These findings include detention centers failing to promptly obtain students’ individualized education plans and discontinuing their special education, according to official documents.
Youth of color or kids who are poor make up a majority of those entering juvenile centers, said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, adding that these youngsters almost always have had a bad experience with school.
“When youth end up in the juvenile justice system, it’s often because every other system or structure that we have has really failed them,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what you see for our young people who are there.”
Despite higher academic needs, students in juvenile justice schools also have fewer options and ways to make up failed classes, making it harder for them to catch up, according to a 2019 analysis of federal data by Bellwether Education Partners, an education and research nonprofit.
One of the study’s authors, senior analyst Max Marchitello, said kids in juvenile facilities “have to pay this additional cost of loss in educational opportunities,” which he called double punishment.
A 2016 Department of Education report on schools in the juvenile justice system, the most recent of its kind, was based on 2013-14 data and found that centers offer 26 hours of class time per week, four fewer hours than their public school equivalents.
Classes, particularly higher-level ones, were offered less frequently, the report found. For example, physics was offered at just 8% of schools under the juvenile justice system compared with 60% of public high schools.
“It’s the one area of education – sort of everything else has moved to having a lot of accountability and focus on excellence – this area has just stayed the same,” Rodriguez said.
A missed opportunity
Education is viewed as one of the most useful ways to help offenders, especially for students who weren’t engaged during school.
“Education while kids are juveniles in confinement can be such an opportunity – it can be an incredible learning opportunity,” said Carolyn Fink, a professor at the University of Maryland whose work and teaching has primarily centered on special and correctional education.
Sometimes, Fink said, when a student is placed in the right setting, that child’s whole attitude toward academics and their future can shift.
“There are great success stories,” she said. “So it’s maddening to me that it’s so under-resourced because it (has such) potential for huge student improvement for students who really need it.”
Providing an equal education for incarcerated young people comes with an additional set of obstacles due to their unique needs, said Sarup Mathur, a professor at Arizona State University whose research on correctional education is widely cited.
“Their needs are very different. Sometimes they have to go to individual therapy. Sometimes they have to receive substance abuse treatment,” she said, adding that accommodating all these factors can be difficult in detention.
Increased transparency, along with more substantial data, could be driving factors in helping craft a comprehensive picture of what education for incarcerated children looks like, said Hailly T.N. Korman, a senior associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners.
More data and better data would do two critical things, Korman said, the first being heightened accountability for facilities and the second being a method to see which models are working.
A 2019 review of education in the juvenile justice system from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, citing studies from 2011 and 2014, stated that, “Youth who do achieve higher levels of education while in the juvenile justice system are more likely to experience positive outcomes in the community once released.”
But the juvenile justice system leaves many unprepared to return to school after incarceration, if they return at all. Sixty-six percent do not return to school after release from custody, according to a 2016 report from the National Juvenile Justice Network.
After eight years of working in a high school in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles, one high school math teacher acknowledged that it’s obvious when a student has just come from a juvenile detention center.
When returned to a normal classroom setting, children who’ve been to juvenile detention camp usually express themselves in two ways, said the teacher, whose name is not being used to maintain the privacy of students.
The first is acting very quiet and withdrawn, the teacher said, explaining that in this case, while the child isn’t outwardly rude or disrespectful, they tend to not ask questions even if they’re agitated or frustrated over an assignment.
“They kind of feel like everything’s over their head, everything’s above them, they’re not going to get anything, nothing is going to make sense,” the teacher said. “If you spent most of eighth grade in camp while everybody else was learning, of course you’re going to come into school feeling like you probably don’t get it.”
Alternatively, a student just out of detention may decide not to try and potentially stop attending class, the teacher said.
“They feel stupid, but they will never say, ‘I feel stupid.’ They’ll just say, ‘This doesn’t matter. This is stupid. I don’t care about this. This is dumb,’” the Watts teacher said. “So they come in with this bravado of, ‘Now this is all stupid, why would you guys pay attention to this?’”
The transition to a traditional high school environment was “definitely a shock,” said Jasso, who served detention as a ninth grader in San Mateo.
While Jasso received weekly counseling and did improve his grade point average by his senior year, he said he still felt unprepared to tackle essays and other assignments outside the classroom.
“There was structure, but there wasn’t really structure, right?” Jasso said of his classes at the state-run detention school he attended for a year. “We were learning things but we weren’t really learning things, right? I think that did more harm than good in the long term because when I eventually got to college I had so much catching up to do.”
Jasso agrees that low expectations are part of the problem.
“The system that’s in place doesn’t anticipate people going to higher education,” he said. “It doesn’t anticipate people going past their GED or high school diploma because that’s just been the case for a long time.”
Teaching and reaching students behind bars
Helena Flores of Travis County, Texas, started working in juvenile detention facilities when she was pursuing her doctorate in school psychology at Indiana University, eventually making stops as a volunteer in a high-security prison and an all-girls correctional facility.
Flores, who recently earned her Ph.D., now researches juvenile correction education. She said the lack of support for educators in juvenile detention facilities may be pushing away those most passionate about making a difference.
“We tell our kids they need to be challenged so that their brains can grow and develop,” Flores said. “We have to do the same things for our teachers.”
The task of fixing education for these kids is “complex and difficult,” said Korman of Bellwether Education Partners, especially considering that educators and administrators are often under-resourced.
“There are people out there that are doing it well, and we can’t find them because they don’t have any data,” Korman said. “The only stories that we read are about the programs with the charismatic principal or the well-connected executive director – and not about all the teachers and principals with their heads down doing really good work every day.”
Educators often have another classroom hurdle to overcome in reaching students: childhood trauma suffered by many students.
That trauma can be intensified just by being incarcerated, said Angela Porter, education unit supervisor in the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families.
But understanding how to handle trauma in detention center classrooms benefits both students and teachers, said Porter, who brought several training sessions on handling kids with social and emotional issues to Delaware detention centers.
The winding road of reentry
Lack of access to career or trade opportunities while incarcerated also hinders the future success of young people once they exit the juvenile justice system, leaving many unprepared to enter the workforce or pursue higher education, according to a report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Oregon and Idaho are among those states that incorporate vocational programs in juvenile centers, teaching young adults the skills they need to enter such fields as cosmetology or construction.
Nearly 50 vocational and work opportunities are available for Oregon youth, with certification options ranging from hair styling to welding.
“If a youth decides to move to another state somewhere down the road, those certifications walk with them,” said Tracie Hightower, the education services coordinator at Oregon Youth Authority.
“We try to make sure that everything that we do transfers out,” Hightower said.
Nationally, this type of training is uncommon.
A 2015 survey of all state juvenile correctional agencies in the U.S. found that only eight states provided educational and vocational services that were equivalent to those offered in public schools.
Standardizing these services, among other recommendations, “will ensure that the delivery of education is equitable and increase the likelihood that all incarcerated youth make progress toward college and career readiness upon release,” the survey concluded.
Students at all three of Idaho’s state-run facilities split their learning time between a classroom and a career technical class, said Cindy Orr, education program director for the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections. Young adults are offered work opportunities in such occupations as woodworking, farming and construction, she said.
“We work really hard to help them see that they can learn, that they are talented, that they have the ability to do it, and then provide them the tools and teach them skills that would help them advocate for themselves so that they understand how they learn and how they can communicate that with their future teachers,” Orr said.
Porter said Delaware offers culinary, personal finance and visual media classes in its detention centers. She would like to see the state offer a wider variety of classes that kids would enjoy and that would help them find career paths, such as cosmetology, construction skills and music production.
But there are hurdles.
“Those programs are expensive, and I know they require a lot of equipment and some of them require a lot of space, which may be challenging for us,” Porter said.
The push to ease the reentry of young people after incarceration is one that’s just begun to gain traction with federal reports and guidance, said Mathur, the ASU researcher.
“It’s only recently that we have published these findings and have started to make policy briefs about these findings,” she said. “We are hoping that people will start to understand the importance of that.”
Experts and administrators agree that education is a necessity in preparing some of the nation’s most vulnerable students for life beyond incarceration, but setbacks in equalizing the patchwork system is difficult, tedious and harder than most realize.
“I really feel like we’re their last chance to demonstrate that they can learn, that they’re special, and that they have that ability,” Orr said.
Kelsey Collesi and Kimberly Rapanut are Buffett Foundation fellows, and Gabriela Szymanowska is a John and Patty Williams fellow.
This report is part of Kids Imprisoned, a project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country. It is headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.