Feds take aim at school-to-prison pipeline

Feds take aim at school-to-prison pipeline

(Va.) Public school and juvenile justice administrators must work together and alongside community stakeholders to ensure that not only are incarcerated students receiving the free education to which they are entitled but also the support services to propel them away from prison toward greater academic and life achievement.

This overarching theme binds a federal guidance package – released late last week by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder – aimed ultimately at reforming the juvenile and criminal justice systems to reduce interactions with youths by enforcing their rights to a quality education.

“Students in juvenile justice facilities need a world-class education and rigorous coursework to help them successfully transition out of those facilities and back into the classroom or the workforce becoming productive members of society,” Duncan said in a statement. “Young people should not fall off-track for life just because they come into contact with the justice system.”

The Correction Education Guidance Package is an outgrowth of President Barack Obama's, “My Brother's Keeper” initiative, launched earlier this year to address gaps in opportunities for young minorities. A task force from that program said reforms within the juvenile and criminal justice systems were sorely needed.

The package contains a set of guiding principles for providing quality education in secure juvenile detention facilities, as well as three separate letters reiterating federal anti-discrimination laws designed to protect students’ rights.

The main document outlines the five guiding principles – from safe, healthy learning facilities and adequate funding to rigorous curriculum development and recruitment and retention of qualified teachers – necessary to support education for the 60,000 youths incarcerated in America.

Each principle contains supporting core activities that can be used to improve educational practices or implement new ones.

“The guiding principles and core activities detailed in this report are based on the assumption that juvenile justice agencies and secure care facilities will either take direct responsibility for education implementing or work with educational agencies proactively to ensure that high-quality educational services are available to every child in their care,” authors wrote in the document.

Particularly important, advocates say, is guidance around federal special education laws, which require that all students with disabilities – even those in secure facilities – must be provided the same special education services as their non-incarcerated peers.

Students with disabilities represent a large portion of students in correctional facilities, and it appears that not all students with disabilities are receiving the special education and related services to which they are entitled, the guidance states.

In releasing the guidance, officials underscored that an investment in high-quality education for youth offenders could save money. It costs an average of $88,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile offender, they said, and good schooling could reduce the likelihood that young people will be arrested again.

“We hope and expect this guidance will offer a roadmap for enhancing these young people's academic and social skills, and reducing the likelihood of recidivism," Holder said in a statement.    

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