Study Shows Lackluster Education in Juvenile Justice System

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Brian Robinson, a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners and Hailly T.N. Korman, a senior associate partner, are two authors of a recent study on education for incarcerated youth. Photos courtesy of Bellwether Education Partners.

All children are entitled to an education in the U.S., but that promise often falls short when they get locked up. 

According to a study released last month, “Double Punished: Locked Out of Opportunity,” tens of thousands of students attend school behind bars on any given day, yet “very few of them receive the kinds of high-quality programs that they need.” 

This is a lost opportunity, states a group of researchers with the Boston, Massachusetts-based Bellwether Education Partners: “For many of them, this may be their last, and their best, chance to prepare for a healthy transition to adulthood. And it’s being squandered.” 

Incarceration of youth has declined about 70% nationally since 1995, federal data shows. Still, in 2019, there were more than 240,000 young people in lockups, youth who are disproportionately Black and brown, LGBTQ, and living with education or mental health challenges. 

“Juvenile justice education fails many of these students every day, leading to serious long term-consequences,” the Bellwether researchers found, after reviewing school structures and policies in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Some students in detention “have the good luck to land in a facility with teachers and program leaders who go beyond the minimum compliance standard,” but that experience is the exception.

Two of the study’s four authors spoke at length with The Imprint about their findings: Brian Robinson, a senior analyst at Bellwether, and Hailly T.N. Korman, a senior associate partner. Both researchers spent time as school teachers before they pursued higher degrees. 

Robinson, 35, has a doctorate in education policy and leadership from New York University. He grew up in a Baltimore neighborhood “where the deck is stacked against young Black children before they draw their first breath,” and he describes those children as his inspiration. 

Korman, 42, has a law degree from UCLA and has worked to support education and youth justice system leaders across the country. She said young people in her family inspire her work. 

​​This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Dr. Robinson, you began your career as an elementary school teacher in the Washington, D.C., area. What did you learn in the classroom that has guided your work as an academic studying the juvenile justice system?

Robinson: In traditional public school systems, there are clear structures, expectations, accountability. Everyone from the teacher to the district administrators are held accountable. But in most states, the kids in juvenile justice education programs don’t get the benefit of clearly structured systems. There’s little attention paid to them. 

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Photo courtesy of Bellwether Education Partners.

That’s why we say they’re double-punished. The courts decide legal consequences for kids, but then one of the primary mechanisms for rehabilitating youth — a high-quality education program — is out of grasp for them. 

What inspired your research team to examine the quality and delivery of education for detained youth?

Robinson: We didn’t really address the quality of the programs that would require deeper analysis of data — which doesn’t typically exist, which is one of the problems that we found with juvenile justice programs. The data that you would need to assess the quality of programs doesn’t exist to the level that it should.

The kids who interact with the juvenile justice system are some of our most vulnerable youth. It’s a population that society doesn’t think about what happens once they’re arrested. Kids are entitled to education services, but what happens when kids are taken out of the school system, out of their home school, away from their families, and put in these detention facilities? We know that for many, this may be their last shot at rehabilitation intervention. How do we ensure that kids are getting what they need in order to make the most out of what could be a last opportunity?

Korman: We work in an education-equity focused sector, full of lots of advocates and nonprofit organizations that talk a lot about what equity means. What does it mean to say ‘all kids?’ For the last 15 years, it doesn’t mean these kids. Often, folks will have an assumption that that’s somebody else’s job, that’s being taken care of somewhere else. Part of what we wanted to do was help folks from those two different conversations — the justice reform conversation and the education-equity conversation — and see how their work overlaps.

Your report notes that on any given day, tens of thousands of students attend school behind bars. Yet although they are entitled under state and federal laws to an education, “very few” receive quality schooling. What is the ultimate result of this failure to educate — on the students, their communities and the public at large?

Korman: The defining feature of the juvenile justice system as compared to the adult criminal legal system is that everybody comes home. Whether or not folks think they have a legal duty, there is an ethical duty and a moral duty to better support this population of young people. This is their last best chance to make a transition to a healthier pathway.

In most cases, we squander it. Many kids don’t even attempt to re-enroll in school when they return to their community, and of those who do, most don’t go on to graduate. That has long-term consequences for them in terms of personal fulfillment and economic consequences for their communities at large and intergenerationally.

You describe juvenile justice education programs across the country as fragmented systems with scant accountability and complicated governance structures “where students easily fall through the cracks.” Can you share an example of how this circumstance negatively impacts the education of incarcerated youth?

Robinson: One example could be a student who receives special education services, an Individualized Education Program (IEP). If a student is arrested and held within a local facility, then getting their IEP and education records to their juvenile detention facility may take some time, which is a delay in their services. 

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Photo courtesy of Bellwether Education Partners.

Let’s say a student is arrested in Buffalo, New York, for example, and is receiving education services from the Local Education Agency which is responsible for providing education to youth in local detention centers in Buffalo. (I don’t know if this is true, I’m just providing an example). If that student is adjudicated delinquent and transferred to the New York Office of Children and Family Services, then their education records need to be transferred as well. A delay in the transfer of records can lead to a delay in education services.

This is because of a fragmented system — a system where different agencies involved in providing services could lead to a delay: Something as simple as transferring data and records between the multiple systems, and communicating between the multiple people who are in charge of all systems. That means that one student is missing out on services they are legally entitled to.

Korman: Another example I would raise is around credits. States don’t have uniform course codes even where they’re accruing information on transcripts. As kids are moving from institution to institution, they’re not necessarily coding them the same. So when the student returns to their community and they’re trying to re-enroll in school, they have this package of transcripts that don’t have the course codes that make sense to the guidance counselor at that home school. They often end up classifying many of them as electives. So even if you pass ninth and tenth grade math during the time you spent in juvenile justice facilities, you, a 17-year-old, are going to have to take math again. The chances, then, of me at 17 sticking around are much smaller. You’re gonna make it hard for me. 

I cover youth justice in upstate New York. What can you tell me about the quality and delivery of education in this state, and how it compares with other states?

Robinson: In New York state, the local education agencies deliver the education services to students in juvenile facilities outright, or they contract the juvenile facility to do it. The Office of Children and Family Services is responsible for the services they provide the students at the state level. They operate their own juvenile justice education program, through their Bureau of Education Services, which is also not unusual. 

What stands out to me was the state financing, in that the state doesn’t provide funding to the state agency for educational services. The Office of Children and Family Services has to use their own budget, their own funds to provide education services, and they share the cost with the home local education agency of the student. The kids in these programs have unique needs that may not be captured in a traditional funding formula, or that may require more resources than is provided. 

Korman: The only element I would add to that — that complicates questions about financing and funding in these spaces — is that there’s a lot of advocacy to reduce funding and to close these facilities entirely. We have to hold on to the tension here that providing high-quality services costs money. To just say, we’re not going to spend any more money on detention centers, well, there are kids in them. We think it’s just important to name and recognize that delivering high-quality services and reducing spending might not both be possible.

What can you say about how detained students have fared throughout the pandemic with regard to their education? What did remote learning look like for young people in custody?

Korman: We have very little information. These are very opaque systems to get data on, and it’s also very difficult to go see what’s happening in them — for good reasons that protect youth safety and privacy. As best as I can tell, they face some really unique challenges during the pandemic in different ways than traditional public schools. Also access to family and visitation, in many places, was shut off. 

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Photo courtesy of Bellwether Education Partners.

In traditional schools, where kids were going to home and school, there were thoughts about COVID transmission and wanting to isolate and close schools. Whereas in detention centers, they’re not going anywhere. That doesn’t mean that people always made the most thoughtful or caring choices, but the questions were different about, what does risk look like? The best evidence that we have is coming out of lawsuits — students who are entitled to special education services, who weren’t receiving it. They were getting worksheets under the door, or self-directed learning on a tablet.

Juvenile justice education programs are mostly operated by Local Education Agencies (LEAs) in each community. But to what extent can, and do, detention centers participate in furthering incarcerated students’ education? In what ways do institutions deter learning?

Korman: These are not spaces designed with learning in mind. If there is any reasonable concern about safety, then that wins the day. You can’t keep a room full of teenagers perfectly safe from everything.

I think the opportunity in them could be skill-gap remediation. When I spend time in facilities, one of the questions I ask is: ‘When is the last time you remember going to school every day?’ The answer I usually get is something like fifth or sixth grade. So, kids usually have intensive skill gaps, especially around literacy. 

Regardless of whether or not you were in school last week, records are dispersed everywhere. It’s very hard to prepare a complete transcript. Then they’re left with an incomplete set of education records. When they leave, it’s just gotten more complicated. 

Robinson: I remember one conversation around how sharp the pencils could be because the pencils could be used as weapons. Good reasons, you can say, but that can have a negative impact on a student’s ability to access an education.

You describe education systems for youth in custody as having “too many actors” with poorly aligned sets of responsibilities. What would a functional educational system look like in these settings and how would its players be held to account?

A functional education system would be one that isn’t fragmented. You have an accountability structure that is unique to the goals of juvenile justice education programs, which may not be the same as traditional public school programs. Few states have that. Having goals that are tailored to students, their grade level, their time in confinement, and their transition back to their communities is important as well. 

If a program isn’t doing well, if students aren’t earning credits, earning high school diplomas, aren’t able to stay in Career and Technical Education programs to learn high-demand skills and earn industry credentials and certificates, accountability looks like either intervention in the program, or maybe a change of leadership or change of operators. So if an LEA isn’t serving a juvenile justice education program well, then move the LEA as the party responsible for providing education services and replace them with a nonprofit or a charter. There are ways to hold these programs accountable, and that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should.

How do you hope your research will be utilized by those in charge of education for detained teens, and what further study, quantitative or qualitative, would you like to see done in this area to ensure these young people are being properly educated?

Korman: Many of the things that we found in this research can’t be done by an individual leader. What they need is state policy change. My dream is having data that we could use to look at program quality. We think the most essential kind of data that you would need is student outcome data, but there are very, very few places in which you can find even the smallest amount of student outcome data, so it is impossible for us to know in any sort of empirical way which programs are working. It also means we can’t find who’s doing it as well and say: This is who we learn from. What are they doing that’s making this difference for kids?

We also see an opportunity for these places to be a clearinghouse to say, look, once we do that intake, we’re responsible for assembling a complete education record for this kid, regardless of when they leave us. So that when we do get that request from the next school, we’re able to send along a complete record, not just what they did with us in the six weeks that they were here.

Sarah Seungju Kim contributed to this report.