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Report Explores 'Pipeline to Prison' for Students With Disabilities

Thousands of students with disabilities such as emotional disorders are referred to the juvenile justice system each year, a process that interrupts their schooling and makes it more likely they will have run ins with the law later in life, says an article published by the Hechinger Report, an independent education news website. 

The article, written by Jackie Mader (the author of Edweek's Rural Education blog) and Sarah Butrymowicz, builds from in-depth reporting that Hechinger has been doing on Mississippi's education system. From the article: 

When the special education system fails youth and they end up in jail, many stay there for years or decades. The vast majority of adults in American prisons have a disability, according to a 1997 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey. Data hasn't been updated since, but experts attribute the high percentage of individuals with disabilities in the nation's bloated prison population—which has grown 700 percent since 1970—in part due to deep problems in the education of children with special needs.

In Mississippi and across the country, the path to prison often starts very early for kids who struggle to manage behavioral or emotional disabilities in low-performing schools that lack mental health care, highly qualified special education teachers, and appropriately trained staff. ...

"A lot of times, it's a major setback," said Elissa Johnson, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. She added that some transgressions are serious, and it's behavior that needs to be addressed, "But when you're dealing with students with disabilities, youth court referrals are harmful."

A companion article talks about what happens once those special education students enter the juvenile justice system. Not surprisingly, they seldom get any of the accommodations that may be a part of the individualized education programs, if they get any education at all during their stay at various detention centers. Though the anecdotes and children in these reports are from Mississippi, the issues explored here are relevant—and important—to any every state. 

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