Schools in juvenile justice facilities

Education programs in many prisons and jails for juveniles do more harm that good, according to the Southern Education Foundation.

The Atlanta-based group found that even while the quality of education in these institutions is lacking, they cost more per student than what taxpayers spend for public schools.

The study acknowledges the juveniles offenders are in special circumstances that make teaching and learning difficult.

“Both state and local juvenile justice systems are failing profoundly in providing adequate, effective education in the South and the nation,” according to a report on quality of education programs in juvenile facilities. “The current and future consequences of this persisting failure are enormous. A safe, secure environment that is the least restrictive has been and remains the first order of business in juvenile justice and a prerequisite in the states’ responsibilities for the young people whose lives they control. But, that is not enough – not nearly enough in this day.”

Despite the challenges of working with juvenile offenders Georgia officials acknowledge they need to improve.

“We have already realized (juvenile offenders) getting a high school diploma is a focus of ours,” said Audrey Armistad, director of education for Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice. “That number is significantly low. It’s a challenge. But we recognize it’s something we have to do.”

According to a report released Thursday, only 9 percent of the 1,545 juveniles in DJJ facilities in 2010 and 2011, who were eligible, received their diplomas or GED certificates. The national average is 8 percent. Seven of 15 southern states had lower percentages than Georgia.

“We do get a lot of kids that come in and they can’t read and they are 16 years old,” Armistad said.

Last December, DJJ awarded GED certificates to 74 teenagers in custody and another 11 recieved high school diplomas. Six months earlier, GED certificates were given to 79 incarcerated juveniles and high school diplomas were awarded to 27.

The report said 52 percent of juveniles locked up in Georgia are released without earning any school credits; half nationwide earned no school credits.

“What are they doing for six to eight hours a day?” said David Domenici, executive director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings in Washington.

Armistad said virtually all juvenile offenders incarcerated in Georgia go to school about 5 1/2 hours a day. Regular classes, for the most part, are limited to no more than 15 students; 12 students in special education classes.

She said the 67 teachers at the seven youth development campuses, the equivalent of prisons for juveniles, are certified in the subject area they teach. That is not the case, however, at the 20 RYDCs, short-term lockups akin to a jail for adults.

“In some cases the teachers may have certification but they may not be highly qualified in the academic area (they are teaching),” Armistad said. “The exception is special education students. One of the three teachers (at each RYDC) must have special education certification. Because of the short stay, the student is not likely to complete a course for credit.”

The researchers said in an interview Wednesday much of the blame for the poor education of locked up juveniles should be on the quality of teachers.

“The teachers in these facilities have often been teachers that couldn’t make it in the public schools or weren’t qualified to teach in the public school,” said Tom Blomberg executive director of the Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research at Florida State University.

“These children are being given an education that is far below what is provided to other students who have less needs,” said Steve Suitts, the report’s author and vice president of the foundation that focuses on the educational needs of poor children and students of color.

Armistad said, “sometimes I may get teachers who aren’t as strong as they should be… We do have to put some teachers on remediation plans to go back and get the core certification that we would like them to have.”

They also have to go through intensive training for teaching in a DJJ facility “because it’s a different environment,” Armistad said. They have to be specially trained to work in a prison environment.

Disruptions that are a part of prison life that interfere with schooling, the researchers said.

“Students in juvenile justice schools… have profound challenges,” the report said. “They are significantly behind in school, often possess learning disabilities or delays, and frequently have multiple emotional, psychological and physical problems.”

Almost a third of the juveniles in the study had been physically or sexually abused. Sixty percent had trouble with anger. And one in five of them wished they were dead.

Juvenile offenders can be pulled out of class to take medication or to meet with a counselor or probation officer, for example. Armistad said other interruptions can come from loud security radio and teenagers who are “anxious and uneasy.” In addition, Armistad said, there are sometimes gang issues that have to be addressed.

The report concludes “The juvenile justice systems may be doing more harm than simply failing to provide effective education.”

Consequently, education programs in a lock up for juveniles “also may be denying troubled youth the means by which to turn around their own lives in the near future so that they can make full use of education in the long run.”

For the most part, the Southern Education Foundation report was based on national data collected by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and studies conducted in various states and only some of the information was individualized for the states.

On Jan. 1, reforms in the juvenile justice system were put in place in Georgia with the intent of only locking up the most dangerous offenders and diverting the others to community-based programs. The hope was the reduce the current 65 percent recidivism rate and to save taxpayers the $250 a day they spend on each kid who is locked up.

Such reforms create new challenges with moving once-institutionalized juveniles back into public schools.

By Rhonda Cook
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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