I have attended a number of national juvenile justice conferences, listening sessions, panel discussions and meetings for well over a decade. As an educator, I often feel like a foreigner in a strange land. I have consistently heard the genuine concerns and efforts of committed juvenile justice professionals to reduce incarceration and recidivism of our nation’s youth. At every gathering, there is mention of the need to have education at the table. However, more often than not, there are few conference sessions on education, sparse attendance by educators, a lack of joint planning and few examples of successful local juvenile justice/education partnerships. Why is this happening?
Fifteen years ago, as a special education director in King County, Washington, I began to notice more and more of our special education students becoming involved in juvenile justice as well as a larger percentage of dropouts. A local study found that 70 percent of youth in detention or on probation had dropped out of school or had so few credits that graduation was unattainable. The direct link between education and juvenile justice became very clear, as did the realization that business between juvenile justice and education could no longer continue as usual.
Locally, five years later, a systems change began when our King County jurisdiction found an educational champion to become an equal partner in the jurisdiction’s joint planning, leadership and decision-making process. This oversight leadership group was named Uniting for Youth. A juvenile justice/education partnership called PathNet followed and a systems change began. Youth in the juvenile justice system began receiving strength-based assessments and creating self-driven plans toward an end goal of a living wage job and career. Grants were procured. Results revealed reduced recidivism and increased re-engagement. At the local level, within the borders of King County, there was much improvement.
On the national level, education began getting notice in 2004 when the Gates Foundation published the “Silent Epidemic” and Time magazine followed with their cover story calling the United States the “Dropout Nation.” The “School–to-Prison Pipeline” dialog evolved and, in 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative. Recently, the MacArthur Foundation, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, to name a few, included education as a major element of their national reform platform.
In spite of all this good work for the past 10 years, I’m still not seeing education as an equal partner when I visit jurisdictions across the nation. I hear phrases like “dual jurisdiction youth” or “crossover youth” focusing on social welfare and juvenile justice. This work has added tremendous value but education seems to be an afterthought. I have never seen a youth who had significant issues with those two systems who didn't have significant issues with education. It is obvious that juvenile justice and education will never successfully reform current practices and local outcomes without becoming full partners.
So, why now? What’s the big hurry? The big hurry is that everyday we are losing ground on our nation’s economy and the democratic way of life. Ten years have passed since the “Silent Epidemic” was brought to our attention. Each year a youth is incarcerated, hundreds of thousands of dollars are consumed while lost income reduces the nation’s tax base. Each youth who cannot read, write and make educated decisions jeopardizes the core of our democratic process — an educated population of voters. I regularly express to my colleagues that juvenile justice and education must end the failed practice of isolation and begin to function as true partners on behalf of our youth.
Don’t kid yourself; systems change is a slow process and we don’t have another 10 years. The time is now to knock down the local silos and place educators and juvenile justice staff together who know each other’s names, learn each other’s language, understand each other’s rules, plan, attend and present at each other’s conferences, train together, work together and celebrate together. If your jurisdiction is feeling that education isn’t an equal partner, identify a local education champion and develop a relationship that focuses on the benefits of collaboratively addressing the educational needs of the youth you have in common. We cannot afford to keep acting like education and delinquency are not connected. Change must begin now.
Dr. John Mick Moore received his Master’s Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He is a consultant for the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, led by RFK Children’s Action Corps, serves on the RFK National Resource Center’s Dual Status Youth Practice Network, and is a current fellow and lecturer at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. Dr. Moore has been involved in a variety of interagency, systems-integrated community initiatives associated with drop-out prevention and retrieval, juvenile justice involvement, child welfare issues and workforce development needs as they apply and interface with the public educational system. He is currently working in the private sector as the Senior Education Consultant for Education and Workforce Solutions.