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The Changes ESSA Makes for Educating Children in the Juvenile-Justice System

During our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, we've focused on English-language learners, students of color, and students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, among others. But the law also makes some noteworthy changes for a group of students that often gets ignored—those being educated in the juvenile-justice system.

Some of the key changes included in Title I Part D of the law are designed to help students who are transitioning out of juvenile justice back into traditional public schools, or trying to, at least. The transfer of credits and academic records is addressed. And there's a renewed emphasis in ESSA for those students to get on the same academic track as their peers in traditional public schools. Other outstanding issues, however, are not addressed in ESSA. 

In 2013, 323,000 juveniles were judged to be delinquent, and out of those, 78,000 were put into long-term placement facilities, according to a report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice. by Julie Furdella and Charles Puzzanchera. And a 2011 fact sheet from the Neglected or Delinquent Technical Assistance Center, which tracks juvenile-justice education, found that just under 400,000 individuals were in juvenile detention (where they are typically kept before trial or before their cases are adjudicated) and juvenile correctional facilities (where they are typically placed post-adjudication) in the 2008-09 school year. 

For some more context, check out the chart below detailing the total number U.S. arrests of juveniles in recent years, according to the Justice Department. 


A 2014 report on juvenile arrests from the Justice Department also showed that more specifically, violent crime rates among juveniles dropped during the same time period.

Part of that decline can be attributed to successful pre-arrest diversion programs, said Kate Burdick, a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center.

New Requirements for States

Now, here are more details about notable changes ESSA makes for juvenile-justice education:

• ESSA requires states to provide assurances that there is "timely re-enrollment" in the secondary school or other educational program that "best meets the needs of the student." (See page 100 of the law.) Burdick said in practice she hopes this change in the law means fewer children who are exiting juvenile-justice programs are shunted or nudged into alternative education programs by the school districts they were previously enrolled in.

"It's extremely common for children returning from juvenile justice not to be re-enrolled in their prior districts," Burdick said. "It leads to gaps in their education, and this is a group of young people who are already significantly behind."

• Another thorny issue that ESSA tries to address for these students is credit transfer. Many students who are educated in the juvenile-justice system believe that they are earning credits, only to be told by their "home" school upon exiting the system that they won't accept the credits earned while in juvenile justice. Burdick recalled one girl who thought she'd be entering her senior year of high school after exiting, only to be told she only had enough academic credits to qualify for freshman year. Such circumstances, she said, contribute to a sobering statistic: Two-thirds of those who enter the juvenile-justice system eventually drop out of school.

ESSA includes language that states must provide assurances that credits earned in juvenile justice must transfer over to students' home schools or elsewhere.

• And here's a related change: ESSA requires juvenile correctional facilities to work with students' family and home school districts to make sure that academic records transfer over when the student re-enters districts. 

"We see a huge breakdown when it comes to moving the paperwork," Burdick said.

• The law also places a greater emphasis on students in juvenile justice programs earning a traditional high school diploma. Although a GED might seem like a more straightforward and easier option for some students in juvenile justice, Burdick said sometimes students who should be given the chance to earn a regular diploma simply don't get that opportunity.

In some cases, GED programs are the only educational programs provided to students in these facilities, she added. 

Lingering Issues for Juvenile Justice

So what are some of the challenges in this area ESSA doesn't address? Burdick said the law still leaves the door open for many students, after they exit juvenile justice, to be pushed into alternative education programs, like centers for "disruptive" young people, that don't best serve their needs.

And ESSA also doesn't say much about the crucial topic of keeping families and other responsible adults involved in students' education while they are in the juvenile-justice system, she noted.

"We know that this education bill was an important federal compromise," Burdick also said. "We were thrilled that our population was addressed at all."

But those hoping for detailed academic information about these students will be disappointed, because ESSA doesn't really address this issue, said Hailly T.N. Korman, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners who studies education in juvenile-justice programs.

There are many reasons why this sort of data about students' academic progress while in juvenile justice is hard to track, or not tracked at all, Korman said. For example, many students in the system aren't there during the typical period of an academic year and therefore aren't tested in the same way. And in several instances, there are exemptions for juvenile-justice educational programs from the kind of reporting and transparency requirements traditional schools must abide by, she noted.

While a handful of states do track some of this academic data, "For the most part, though, it's not going to be the in-depth information that you'd expect. It's certainly not going to be what you'd expect from a traditional public school," Korman said.

A mish-mash of state and local agencies are responsible for educating these students. And statistics indicate that most children in the juvenile-justice system are only there for six to nine months. Those two facts, combined, means that this relatively brief period can lead to prolonged bureaucratic bickering about which organization is responsible for aspects of students' education, Korman said. To what extent ESSA alleviates this issue remains to be seen.

"You end up with all this fingerpointing between agencies, and kids don't get what they're entitled to," she said.

Related Stories

• State Laws That Can Lead to School Arrests Targeted for Change

• Georgia Counties Aim to Lower Numbers of Locked-Up Juveniles

Punishing Young Offenders Twice

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