Education in Youth Detention Centers

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Education in Youth Detention Centers

by Jamie Polinsky

As summer continues, children across the country are finished with school for the year and starting their summer vacations. Most children look forward to this time without school. However, youth in correctional facilities will not be getting a vacation and will continue to receive a sub-par education. And while questions about what should be taught in schools and to what age groups seem to be constantly in the news, there is one area of education that is not discussed: education in youth detention centers. 

Every state in the union has a law that requires that all children receive a free and appropriate public education. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) this requirement also applies to children with disabilities. IDEA requires school districts, intermediary units, local educational agencies, and youth correctional facilities to provide special education services to students who require them to ensure they receive a free and appropriate public education.

When a child who has been identified as needing special education services and who has an individualized education plan (IEP) is sent to a youth correctional facility, the IEP comes with them. The education and services that are provided must be comparable to those the child received in their home school. Students must receive education by a certified special education teacher while in a correctional facility. Students are still required to take all state assessments and their scores are included in the data for their home school or school district. 

If a student comes into a correctional facility without an IEP and it is observed that the child likely needs special education, the student must be evaluated. This evaluation must be done in a reasonable amount of time. Even if the facility will not have enough time to finish the evaluation, it must still be initiated and then transferred to the local educational agency where the student will continue to receive education. Yet, this does not always happen, particularly for young people who are only in placements for a short time.  Under the IDEA, correctional facilities are also required to have procedures in place that allow for a smooth transition of students to either their home school or into the workforce when they transition out of the correctional system. And yet again, this does not always occur. These supports are important for young people because it not only aids them in rehabilitation, but it also helps when youth return to their home communities and for them to continue moving forward and making good decisions.

Also, disciplinary practices are different for students who are identified as needing special education services. Many special education students have behaviors that are normal and appropriate for them, but often mistaken for “acting out” like getting out of a chair, having a meltdown because of overstimulation, or touching and holding on to teachers and staff. Even though schools are supposed to protect special education students from unfair or incorrect discipline, these actions still often lead to extreme discipline for these students, including involvement with the court. Also, we know that any time a student is excluded from a classroom they  are losing instructional time. But this loss of instructional time because of disciplinary action is even more harmful for students with disabilities. While all students are required to have at least 6 hours of instructional time, special education students should get more than 6 hours a day. The IEP Team must consider intervention strategies, including positive behavioral interventions and supports before dismissing the child from the classroom. Correctional facilities cannot discipline a student to the extent that it would deprive the student of a free appropriate public education.

Correctional facilities, though often ill equipped to do so, have become de facto educational institutions for young people with special needs. Along with the rehabilitation services that these facilities are expected to provide, they must also provide special education services to roughly ​​54,000 youth. With these statistics, even if students are placed in “general education” classrooms, the majority of the class likely requires special education services. Correctional facilities should start focusing on job training and the skills that youth will need after they return to their communities. Instead of shaming youth for their learning struggles, facilities should prepare youth with skills that will allow them to thrive in the larger world. While things are improving and some states have done good work throughout the pandemic, there is still work to be done to ensure that students in correctional facilities receive a free and quality education.