CINCINNATI – Learning can be difficult under the best of circumstances. But for those young people inside the nation’s youth detention centers, the barriers to learning can be enormous indeed.
This was just one of the messages that came out of a panel discussion at a conference in Cincinnati today sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, the first such large-scale meeting of the child advocacy organization in a decade.
The panel, Meeting the Educational Needs of Children in the Juvenile Justice System: Challenges and Opportunities, concentrated on highlighting problems and introducing ideas for reforming detention center school systems.
Panelists, including David Sapp of the American Civil Liberties Union, Lia Venchi, a teacher at a school for youth in detention and David Domenici, a member of the See Forever Foundation, said most of the reforms implemented in schools within juvenile justice facilities have been forced as a result of litigation or administrative complaints, making public attention the biggest force for change in what are usually highly secretive environments.
The children who attend school in juvenile justice detention facilities have much higher needs than those in the general population, the panelists said. These needs include disproportionately higher rates of learning disabilities, mental health disorders, and lower reading and math proficiencies. They are also disproportionately made up of African-American, Hispanic and other minority youth, panelists said.
Most schools within juvenile justice centers are ill equipped to deal with these high-needs students, a challenge that is often made even harder by the presence of high security measures, said David Sapp, an ACLU attorney based in Los Angeles. Worse, they are often staffed with unmotivated teachers who lack administrative oversight, panelists said.
Sapp outlined four main challenges to providing a quality education to juveniles in detention:
- Security. Security measures often determine the level of enrichment and academic programming juveniles receive. “Even just getting students to and from class on time can sometimes be a barrier in this setting,” Sapp said.
- The number of agencies involved. Detention facilities can often be run by one agency and have their educational services run by another. This creates “a crazy network” of administrative oversight, Sapp said, and the lack of communication between agencies can become the biggest barrier to an effective education program.
- The high rates of special needs and mental health needs for students in the system. It’s hard to address these needs adequately given high security, lack of inter-agency communication and poor instructor quality.
- Lack of public awareness or will. “These are kids that a lot of people would rather forget about,” Sapp said. It becomes a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” especially most people will never actually get to enter a detention facility and learn about the reality of its conditions, he said.
Calling public attention to the conditions inside facilities is especially important because many of them are out of the public eye and are very good at keeping information private, Sapp said.
“If you’re on in the inside or know someone who is, be willing to talk about what you’ve seen,” Sapp said. “Call a reporter. And say, hey, I was in this facility and you will not believe what I saw.”
Photos courtesy of Kaukab Jhumra Smith.