Improving Education For Juveniles While Incarcerated

Youth Incarceration in the United States

There are some interesting phrases within the politics of education and youth development. “No Child Left Behind” is one that immediately comes to mind. More recently we have heard “Every Student Succeeds.” Both cases are an example of a broad sweeping policy that some feel was never more than wishful thinking and platitude for voters.

The truth is that many children are still left behind in the American education system. This is apparent in underfunded schools, in ill-equipped special needs units, and in the education for juveniles in jail.

There is concern over the number of students dropping out of education, offending and failing to return to the system. Some feel the problem lies with the correctional facilities. However, the issues for education for juveniles in incarceration are far more diverse.

There is a startling lack of education for juveniles in detention – both pre and during their sentence.

Studies continue to show that the rates of those detained in the juvenile justice system with low educational levels are substantial. Their education levels rarely rise above that of elementary school, with many struggling at high school for multiple reasons and dropping out.

It is important to emphasize the value of education within incarceration. It is a crucial tool to help offenders as they attempt to keep up with their peers and re-enter society. However, 66% of these in juvenile facilities do not return to higher education at the end of their sentence. Why is this the case? Is there a lack of desire, a lack of support or some other issue?

A lack of support and services in education for juveniles is largely to blame for this failure in re-entry.

There is always the concern with any form of a correctional facility that it seems as though the state has given up on those inside. They remain locked away as punishment for their crimes in the hope that they will have no desire to re-offend when released. They need to see themselves as valuable individuals that have improved themselves, learned from mistakes and are ready for a second chance.

They cannot achieve this without the right form of education while locked away. They need the tools and resources to improve, as well as the support of qualified staff. This sounds like a pretty basic requirement. However, children and teenagers across the US experience a failing system that cannot meet their needs.


In December 2014, the US Department of Education and Department of Justice noted the issue. They created a series of five principles that facilities should abide by. They are as follows:

1) a “safe, healthy, facility-wide climate” that then “prioritizes education.”

2) the funding that will “support educational opportunities for all youth” detained within “long-term secure care facilities.”

3) the “recruitment, employment, and retention of qualified education staff” all with the “necessary skill set for teaching in juvenile justice settings.”

4) the adoption of a “rigorous and relevant curricula” that is clearly “aligned with state academic and career and technical education standards

5) the use of “formal processes and procedures” that will “ensure successful navigation across child-serving systems and smooth re-entry into communities.”

These principles are all well and good in explaining the theory of the problem and the concerns of those higher up. The problem is that there has been practical action on a lower level, and this often isn’t possible.

The problems that the system of education for juveniles currently faces.

The issue right now is that there are low standards of educational facilities and curricula here. The approaches in state facilities often do not meet national standards at all. This means that credits that students achieve within the facility may not transfer to other programs when they attempt to re-enroll.

An inmate may work hard for a year or more on their high school education, with every desire to improve and learn, only to find that they have to repeat the classes under the right curricula and standards to graduate. This is understandably frustrating to anyone.

Nobody wants to feel as though their hard work was for nothing, especially when we should congratulate and commend them for trying to make a change. The system should encourage and help this individual where possible, but this doesn’t always happen.

There is also the issue that some schools and colleges simply won’t allow an offender to re-enroll. This “one strike and you’re out” style policy condemn adolescents as soon as they step out of line. It places too much emphasis on the person they were when they left education, rather than they person they have become since. Therefore, it is difficult for detainees to catch up with their peers and fill in the gaps in their education. They were behind when they first offended, which may have had an impact on their decision to turn to crime.

If they remain behind when they leave, they are no further forward in their personal development and may not see the hope and potential for a better life that they should. If they place no value on the educational facilities and credits of the correction center, why should inmates even bother?

What solutions are available within facility reforms and ongoing aid for education for juveniles?

There are many suggested solutions and laws in place to help those trapped within this system. English learners must “meaningfully participate in the educational program” by civil rights laws. No student should see their access to education restricted in any way. There must be a full range of educational opportunities so inmates can meet their individual goals, such as access to high school diplomas and technical training.

Juvenile Justice System

All correctional educational programs must meet the same state standards as those for public schools to improve educational quality for all. They must also ensure that any correctional education credits achieved transfer fully to community schools with no problem.

On leaving the center, the student should receive access to inter-agency and community cooperation services. Placements to schools should be swift and simple with links to dropout re-engagement programs.

Then there is the ongoing issue of children with learning difficulties within the juvenile justice system.

Studies show that as of March 2016, as many as 70% of those in the youth justice system have learning disabilities. The often have a form of emotional disability, such as anxiety issues or bipolar disorder, but there are other learning disorders at work, like dyslexia. This means that US students with emotional disabilities and related disorders are now three times as likely to face arrest before leaving high school than a “typical” teenager.

On face value, this sounds as though it borders on discrimination. Are these children singled out or honed in on and arrested at a higher rate? Or, are they offending more frequently due to social and educational failings?

What is happening to these kids to cause them to offend more often?

If no child ends up left behind, then all children deserve the chance at the same quality of education in the same school. The problem is that this is not always possible. It can be hard enough for schools to support classes as it is, without finding funding for special needs classes and other facilities.

Federal law states that all schools must provide an education for disabled kids in an environment that closely resembles a regular classroom. Some school cannot do so, so their students face an inferior standard of education and watch their prospects diminish.

The other issue here is the attitude of teachers and staff towards these “difficult” students. Students in these situations struggle to cope and become frustrated at their efforts and apparent failing compared to their peers. The easy answer is to lash out or act out, as a means of venting these feelings.

Schools that do not understand these feeling and actions label these kids as disruptive troublemakers. Therefore, many schools find themselves disproportionately suspending students with special needs over other students. At this point, any chance at education or support vanishes. The child is then abandoned to feel like a failure with no clear way forward to make amends and catch back up. Some can continue and re-join the class with the right help. Those that don’t receive it can turn to petty crime.

What solutions may be available here for education for juveniles with these issues?

Education for Juveniles

We have to remember that special education in the juvenile justice system is a right by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The Every Student Succeeds Act now requires improvements in education planning, credit transfer, and re-enrollment. This means a safe, fluid link between the detention center and the school enrolling the student after their sentence to “minimize education and achievement disruption.

The rules and guidelines are in place. The problem comes in finding them and ensuring that they meet all requirements. Also, there are some that wonder if the focus of the solution is in the right place.

The big question for some is whether these kids should face detention at all.

How dangerous are they? Why are they in there? Could a different educational facility help them? There is a one-size-fits-all approach to discipline in many schools, especial those that want what they perceive as a “fair” zero tolerance policy.

The issue here is that the language of the rules is vague and open to interpretation Detention and punishment for disruptive behavior could treat all students as equals, with strict repercussions for all. However, there is a difference between a child acting out through frustration, or an inability to communicate, and those that just want to cause trouble or harm.

Kids that cannot handle the typical classroom environment deserve a place better suited to their needs and challenge. They need somewhere where education can continue positively. Incarceration in juvenile facilities isn’t the answer.

The main concern with the issue of education and young offenders is that there are often more questions than answers. There is a clear need for reform across the board, and the best starting point has to be the first experiences of education for these disabled children.

Children with learning difficulties, ADHD, autism, neurological problems and a range of other concerns face a slippery slope from an early age. They fail to receive the attention, care and funding they require to address the issue and keep up with the class. They then fall behind more and more as the years go by, which causes greater frustration and worsening behavior. Eventually, they appear to be beyond help and suspension, punishment and detainment are likely outcomes.

In the end, it all comes back around to funding and facilities for education for juveniles in detention centers and schools.

We cannot provide these places in appropriate school, teaching aids for those with learning difficulties or state-run education programs in detention centers without them. All teachers, schools, and institutions need the right help and tools to protect children and point them in the right direction. This is easier said than done when government grants only stretch so far, and the number of children in need is so high. There will always be those that slip through the cracks of this system and fail to receive the education they need.

Unfortunately, it remains likely that it is the poorest, most vulnerable candidates that will miss out. Unless wide scale reform occurs across the sector, more adolescents with learning problems will struggle. They will drop out, turn to crime, fail to rehabilitate in juvenile detention, return to society no better off, and re-offend.

The important thing to take away from this issue is this idea of wide reform in multiple areas of education for juveniles.

Government departments and official bodies cannot focus on one element of the problem. It is not enough to improve the standards of the curricula in juvenile centers if nothing happens to stop adolescents going there. At the same time, we can’t focus on the teaching standards for vulnerable individuals in schools and neglect the resources for those that still end up in a detention center.

There is a long way to go, and improvement must occur soon. Until there is a change, more children will suffer expulsion, detention and poor prison education with little sign of hope for the future.

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