Lawmaker calls for required instruction time for juveniles

Lawmaker calls for required instruction time for juveniles

(Tenn.) Students incarcerated in juvenile detention centers would be required by law to receive at least four hours each instructional day under a bill moving through the Tennessee Legislature.

The State Department of Education previously adopted such a rule, but the bill’s author–Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis–said that even with the rule in place, many students are left behind upon release.

“We know that part of rehabilitation is making sure that our students stay on track when they are incarcerated, and we have a high number of students who leave our system and do not re-enroll in school or they drop out,” Robinson said. “So I want to make sure that we keep the continuum. And I’ve talked to different detention centers, and some of them are not even aware of the rule.”

Data collected by the federal office for civil rights show education in the juvenile justice system often lacks quality standards, monitoring and accountability. Students in juvenile detention centers also lack access to even some of the most basic courses.

Algebra I, for instance, is available to 96 percent of students in traditional high schools, compared to 82 percent in juvenile justice schools. By the time a student reaches Algebra II, 92 percent of students in traditional high schools can access such coursework, compared to just 55 percent of students educated in juvenile detention centers.

Six out of 10 students who attend school in a juvenile facility will never re-enroll in school upon release, according to the Federal Interagency Reentry Council–a problem long exacerbated by the fact that transfer credits have not properly transferred in many cases, and students throughout the country have often been barred from enrolling if they were unable to pay fines or cover the cost of lost textbooks.

And of those who do successfully re-enroll, studies have shown far fewer of them will go on to graduate from high school.

Policymakers in Tennessee have set forth in recent years to diagnose and address problems present within its own juvenile justice system. In 2017, a state task force found that nearly half of youth placed in out-of-home facilities are committed for lower-level offenses like misdemeanors and unruly offenses–which wouldn't even be crimes if committed by an adult.

Recommendations released by the task force sought to, among other things, ensure stronger oversight and reinvestment in a continuum of evidence-based services statewide.

Last year, former Gov. Bill Haslam pushed for an overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system using some of the task force’s recommendations. Advocates praised the bill early on, but said it became too watered down during the legislative process.

The bill mainly focused on keeping children out of the juvenile justice system in the first place, and did little to address the needs of students already in detention centers.

Robinson’s bill specifically aims to ensure that students at least receive regular instructional time. Under SB 62, the State Department of Education would be required to develop rules, to be adopted by the state board of education, that include procedures for providing instruction to students incarcerated in juvenile detention centers for a minimum of four hours each instructional day.

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