OP-ED: Juvenile Justice and Education Partnerships: Change Must Begin Now

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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.

2 thoughts on “OP-ED: Juvenile Justice and Education Partnerships: Change Must Begin Now

  1. Why is this a ‘juvenile justice’ issue that seeks to bring in law enforcement as a player rather than mental health professionals? This is the wrong solution to the problem. Our schools are coming to reflect a police state with so many law enforcement programs involved in the lives of our kids.

    Why is it that you people think that more police are the answers to the problems of our youth? When will you stop and think?

  2. I’ve spent 40 years in schools. The first 33 in a health education classroom helping kids with any and all the mental health, health, social, behavioral and even academic problems they struggle with. The last 7 have been a continuation of that.
    There are always kids who come to school with less than desirable starts in life, which subsequently negatively impact their readiness, willingness and abilities to learn or be taught. Those who act out can also adversely impact other students’ ability to. Others have life changes occur as they move through school, sometimes because of what happens in school, that negatively impact their readiness, willingness and ability.
    Schools simply don’t do very well with such kids. Academically, yes. There are many well-trained conscientious special education teachers for example. But if a child or teen has a mental and/or emotional issue, and that issue manifests in behavior issues or problems, the child more often than not simply gets plugged into a discipline system, first in the classroom, then at the school level, that is largely punitive, and that gets increasingly so as the child gets into it.
    Schools not only miss many opportunities to help these kids get on a better path in life, but the way we react to their behavior, starting early on, actually drives them in the direction of being future offenders who end up in the criminal justice system. I’ve always believed that happens because of a deficiency in teacher preparation in colleges and universities. It’s largely subject matter orientated and teachers are usually over prepared academically for what they end up teaching. But in the absence of professional preparation in understanding and dealing with mental and emotional issues in students, teachers simply plug into their parenting modes, which are usually influenced strongly by the way they were parented. Much of that tends to be authoritarian, and punitive.

    Until we change the way teachers and schools deal with students who get off to rough starts, or get off course along the way, we’re going to continue to see the same flow of young people from schools to the juvenile, and ultimately the adult criminal justice system.