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Incarceration Affects Education, Panel Says as Ed. Dept. Releases New Resources

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Schools need better resources and guidance to help youth with incarcerated parents feel supported and to help them navigate changing family dynamics when their parents are released, a roundtable of students, parents, and re-entry professionals told U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. on Monday. 

And youth who are themselves incarcerated need help to readjust to "the real world" and catch up academically after they finish their sentences, the panel said.

The discussion was held as the U.S. Department of Education announced $5.7 million in new grants targeted at assistance for students who have been involved in the criminal justice system and a new toolkit with resources for guidance educators to help support formerly incarcerated youth and adults and their families.

Recent bipartisan discussions about criminal justice reform have largely focused on issues like reducing mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses, but the challenge of addressing the impacts of incarceration is much broader than that, King told participants in the discussion, which was held at Benjamin Banneker High School in the District of Columbia.

"Where we are as a country isn't a truthful reflection of who we are ... We are better than folks struggling through the family separation, reunification, re-entry process without support," King said. "Yes, we need sentencing reform, but sentencing reform is only a slice of the challenges we face."

The re-entry grants announced Monday will build on existing youth re-entry efforts, supporting programs that focus on on career and technical education and collaborative approaches to improving education, employment, and other outcomes. The toolkit addresses "five critical components of an effective re-entry system: program infrastructure, strategic partnerships, education services, transition processes, and sustainability," the education department said.

"Children of incarcerated parents are at greater risk of health and behavior issues in school, among other challenges," the agency said in a news release. "Research shows that more than 5 million children have had at least one parent in prison at one point in their lives. The prevalence of incarceration, particularly in low-income communities of color, has negative consequences for both those incarcerated and their families. In addition, children of incarcerated parents face more economic and residential instability than their counterparts."

The resources are one of several steps the Obama administration has taken to address the intersection of education and incarceration. In 2014, the Education and Justice departments released civil rights guidance on incarcerated youth. The administration also created a "second chance" Pell pilot program to fund the education of prisoners, and it has released several previous rounds of grants to fund re-entry efforts.

Among the biggest challenges identified by the discussion's participants: shifting familiy dynamics when a parent goes to or returns from prison, a lack of employment options, and an inability for incarcerated parents to take an active role in their children's upbringing and education.

Banneker High School Principal Anita Berger recalled a conversation she had with an incarcerated mother.

"She said it was so disheartening when she heard parents trying to discipline their children from a bank of phones," she said. "Parents try to parent their children from a phone call, but they can't."

Schools can help address those challenges by providing students access to tools like videoconferencing to improve communication with parents and by taking steps to ensure that incarcerated parents with internet access have can tap into resources like online gradebooks, Berger said.

Lashonia Thompson-El, who participated in the discussion, went to prison when she was 19, leaving two young children behind. When she was released, her children were 21 and 23.

"For my daughter, the most difficult and most traumatic impact of my absence was the stigma she had to face in her school and even in her family," Thompson-El said.

Students on the panel agreed that schools can take a more active role in helping students by addressing that stigma head-on and by creating welcoming spaces where students who are struggling feel comfortable sharing and discussing their experiences.

"Not only is the adult incarcerated, but the child is also mentally incarcerated," said Derrell Frazier, whose father was incarcerated from the time Frazier was 2 to the time he was 15.

Diane Wallace Booker, the executive director of the U.S. Dream Academy, which serves children of incarcerated parents, said the new resources are a good first step, adding that teachers and educators need help identifying and address the multi-pronged effects of incarceration.

"Sometimes I think we assume that teachers should just figure this out, and it really requires some really knowledgable and sensitive training and support," she said.

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