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For Advocates, New Data On Education in Juvenile Facilities Just the Beginning

For the first time, the U.S. Department of Education's collection of civil rights data includes information on the number of hours a week and days per year that youths in justice facilities have access to educational programming.

But advocates in the field, who have sought the inclusion of data on a population they argue has been largely "invisible," say they hope future collections will dig even deeper into instructional quality, teacher certification, programs for students with disabilities, and graduation rates.

"What happens when the students leave the juvenile justice facilities?" asked Daniel Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which has delved into disparities in suspensions and expulsions and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.  "We are concerned that in many cases they are not allowed to return to a normal high school, and in some cases they are restricted to alternative schools, some of which are disciplinary alternative schools.

"We want to look at where these students wind up. And one of the concerns we have is that often times school districts lose track of these students or deny these students re-entry into any kind of normal program even though they have done their time," he added.

There were also gaps in OCR's juvenile justice data, which did not cover youths who are serving time in adult correctional facilities.

"We need to make sure that we are getting accurate data on that population," said Nina Salomon, a senior policy analyst for the Council of State Governments Justice Center. "And that population crosses over between the juvenile and the adult systems."

Last year, the Council of State Governments released what it called a first-of-its kind report on educational and vocational opportunities for incarcerated youths. The report, "Locked Out: Improving Educational and Vocational Outcomes for Incarcerated Youth,"  found that few states were able to document whether students received a high school diploma or obtained a GED once they left the facilities.

In more than one-third of all states, students were automatically enrolled in an alternative program—not a traditional high school—after release, according to the report. Those alternative schools also tended to have lower graduation rates and curricula that did not meet state standards.

What the New OCR Data Show 

  • On average, justice facilities reported providing 26 hours of education programming weekly. (That's about 5.2 hours a day using a five-day school week.)  
  • 15 percent provided fewer than 20 hours or weekly programming—that's less than four hours a day if you're using a five-day week schedule
  • 21 percent reported providing fewer than 180 days of instruction. (While the number of instructional days vary from state to state, most students have about 180 instructional days each year.) 
  • 5 percent reported providing fewer than 170 days of instruction
  • 24 percent reported providing more than 230 days. (The department said that that reflected the year-round nature of the facilities.)

Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department, said she hoped that this first collection of data would shine a light on what is and isn't happening in those facilities and that "young people should not fall off-track for life just because they come into contact with the justice system."

"Students in juvenile justice facilities need a world-class education and rigorous coursework to help them successfully transition out of facilities and back into the classroom or the workforce to become productive members of society," Lhamon said in a statement. 

The Obama administration has taken a number of steps to improve access to high-quality instruction for students—including special education students and students with disabilities—in juvenile facilities. It also released a guidance letter in 2014 on principles that should guide the process. 

Data collection can be quite messy, particularly in the inaugural year. And the numbers assembled by Education Department show that some facilities provided responses that are far outside the range of possibility. 

Santa Fe County Juvenile Development, in New Mexico, for example, reported that it provided 990 hours of educational programming weekly for pre-and post-adjudicated youths. And some facilities reported on the number of days per year that they provided educational programs, but not for weekly access. (The department did not check back with facilities to verify the accuracy of what they reported, but in calculating the averages it removed responses that were clearly errors.)

The department said that it hoped that the data collection would improve in the future.

That's part of the problem, said Losen, whose group was among those that sought the inclusion of data on youths in juvenile facilities in the civil rights data collection.

Losen said that data should be collected annually, not periodically, for a number of reasons. First, he said, it would provide timely information that could help policymakers and educators make better decisions. Secondly, enforcement becomes difficult if the data are old. Facilities could argue that they had already fixed the problem. Thirdly, he said, the quality of the information will improve with frequency. And, he noted, there are also statutes of limitation to think about.

"We should have information every year, every year—not every other year," he said. "If civil rights is really a priority for these students, who are being removed from educational opportunities...we need the information every year."

Still, he said, the Education Department can work with what it has collected to pursue investigations against the facilities that appear to be much worse than others.

The DOE can initiate compliance reviews, instead of leaving it up to local public defenders to challenge facilities that fail to comply with the law—an often difficult task in the juvenile justice arena since students come from different school districts and it may be harder to organize parents because of the stigma associated with having a child in the juvenile system, he said.

(Andrew Ujifusa wrote Thursday on the Politics K-12 Blog  about the changes to the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that are intended to do a better job of tracking outcomes for students in juvenile justice facilities.)

Positive First Step, But Also Concern

Salomon, from the Council of State Governments, called the new data collection a "positive" first step and said that she hoped it would push more states, districts, and facilities to do a better job at educating their students and collect better data on what they are doing. 

But she was troubled by the data point indicating that one in seven of the facilities that responded offered fewer than 20 hours of educational programming a week—or less than four hours a day in a five-day school week.

"We know from data that they are further behind than their peers academically, often grade levels behind, with low literacy rates and struggling academically," she said.  "These are the kids who need more instruction, not less instruction. That is definitely concerning," she said.

The other initial results, she said, were consistent with what the organization has seen. 

"I think that a good number of facilities are offering full school days or year-round schools, given the nature of facilities," she said.

"I think  [the Education Department] really needs to go a step beyond that though and really look at what those services look like, what the quality of instruction looks like, who are the educators in these facilities," she continued. "Because what we know is that students aren't performing well in these facilities, and these facilities aren't being held accountable for their performance if the students are not making progress. It's one thing to offer something—to offer services—but it needs to go a step beyond to understand better what those services look like."

Other questions she'd like to see answered about students in justice facilities in the data collection:

  • Are they getting credit recovery opportunities?
  • Are they getting access to traditional middle and high school instruction? 
  • Are they getting access to GED preparation if they are at that point in their educational career? 
  • Are they getting access to vocational services and post-secondary certification?

Losen said he'd also like to see data on the kinds of offenses that land students in juvenile facilities, foster youths who are in the system, and services provided to students with disabilities.

"There is a certain assumption that if a student is in the juvenile justice system that they have done something really horrible," he said. But in some instances youths can return to the system because of strict one-strike policies in schools while students are on probation, he said.

Losen stressed the necessity of good, timely data.

"That's important,' he said, "because otherwise these kids are invisible."

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