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Jeremiah was already living with his great-grandparents when he was removed from his family at eight years old and placed in a group home.
When we met him, he was in a short-term juvenile detention facility — and attending a school inside it — while completing a court-ordered substance-abuse treatment program. For Jeremiah, detention effectively stopped his education, further disrupting his life and making it all the more difficult for him to get back on track when released.
And due to the ongoing pandemic, the conditions facing Jeremiah and young people like him are far more perilous. Youth in detention are at a heightened risk for infection, and the virus severely disrupts daily operations in the facilities. In some cases, youth are placed in solitary confinement.
And while the threat of the coronavirus demands precautions and preventative measures, isolating these young people effectively eliminates all rehabilitation and education programming that youth desperately need and deserve.
Even absent the constraints of the coronavirus, it would be difficult to design a facility less suitable for young people to receive a high-quality education. Detention is for youth what jail is for adults: the space between arrest and incarceration.
Although often untold, stories like Jeremiah’s are more common than you might think.
On any given day, more than 16,500 youth across the United States are confined to short-term juvenile detention facilities, and we estimate that between 90,000 and 170,000 spend at least one day in detention. Even the best centers are ill-equipped to provide the kind of education, remediation and support that these young people need.
The typical juvenile detention center struggles to provide the credit-bearing coursework youth need to keep pace, and classrooms often lack standardized curricula.
For example, the principal of a school in a Washington juvenile detention center reported that youth do work they come with or the teacher creates something for them. Additionally, detention center education programs are unable to provide the intensive remediation that many youth need to catch up.
Youth in detention centers are frequently truant or absent from class, even though they are detained. And, they experience high rates of exclusionary discipline. A study of juvenile detention centers in California found they have a suspension rate two and a half times the state average.
And even these troubling descriptions are likely incomplete: In researching youth education experiences in juvenile detention for a new analysis, we have found significant data limitations and relatively few rigorous studies — making it difficult to paint a complete picture of what is happening to these young people.
What we were able to find suggests that, on the whole, education in short-term detention centers is likely even worse than the already-inadequate services provided in long-term juvenile justice facilities.
Adjudicated youth are a challenging population to serve well, and juvenile detention centers have far more complex constraints than traditional schools. It is difficult to design coursework that meets the needs of a highly mobile, mixed-age and mixed-ability population.
That challenge is compounded because in many places, student records are not transferred from previous institutions in a timely fashion, which especially harms students requiring support for disabilities. Detention centers are also inadequately resourced, and faculty are often inadequately trained and underprepared to serve these young people effectively.
Despite some state actions to release adults from prisons, there has been resistance to similar actions in juvenile detention facilities. It is critical that states, cities and counties take steps to reduce the number of young people in confinement during the coronavirus outbreak. Indeed, there’s already been a meaningful effort across the country to close juvenile detention centers and divert youth into alternative programming.
This is the right thing to do in most cases. But that can’t be all we do. First, shuttering these facilities will take years, and during that time hundreds of thousands of youth will have limited educational opportunities and dimmed futures. Additionally, some students, even after most such facilities are closed, will require services in detention centers.
There are a number of steps that states and other jurisdictions can take to improve education in these facilities. First, because record transfer is a serious problem, states should clarify for schools and districts the processes they should follow to protect student privacy and also relay vital education information in a timely fashion.
Second, states should provide resources and technical assistance to support the development of grade-level curricula and instructional materials for intensive remediation for youth in juvenile detention schools.
Third, there should be a formal process between schools and detention centers to ensure youth re-enroll in school upon release and are awarded the appropriate credit for work they did while detained.
In addition to these reforms, states and districts will need to consider seriously how they will serve and protect youth in detention during this pandemic, as well as how they can provide supplemental services to accelerate educational progress after the profound disruption of the coronavirus.
It’s wrong that Jeremiah cannot access the same educational opportunities as his peers because he is in detention. It is especially egregious that he, and youth like him, are now also put at greater risk of contracting the virus. States, counties and school districts that run these schools need to design better education programs so that Jeremiah — and the hundreds of thousands of kids like him — can increase their chances of getting back on track.
This story about youth in detention was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Hailly Korman is a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners where she works with state and local governments to improve multi-agency coordination. The co-author of “Continuity Counts: Coordinated Education Systems for Students in Transition,” she lives in Los Angeles.
Max Marchitello is a senior analyst with Bellwether Education Partners in the policy and evaluation practice area.