Educating Juveniles Stymied by Punishment-First Approach

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By Jessica DaSilva

Nov. 21 — The biggest obstacle to meaningful education programs in the juvenile justice system may be the belief that punishment is the top priority.

That mindset is pervasive—affecting decision makers at every level of the process, including legislative bodies, state and county agencies, teachers, and even parents.

“Although all agencies have ‘rehabilitation’ in the first two lines [of their mission statements], there is an issue as to whether these kids deserve resources and a top-notch education if they’ve done things that are especially harmful,” said David Domenici, executive director of the Center For Educational Excellence In Alternative Settings.

The culture within these institutions has an “unspoken ethic that kids deserve to be punished,” Jane Guttman—a former correctional educator and author of “ Kids in Jail,” a book about her experience teaching in the juvenile justice system—agreed.

The solution to pushing past a punishment mentality is likely one that returns juvenile offenders to their communities for education.

Community-based programs allow parents to stay involved and advocate for their children and put front-and-center the dividends education and rehabilitation will pay in the long run.

This is the second installment of a three-part series in which juvenile justice practitioners, advocates, and others explain the challenges of overhauling a nuanced and layered system (Part 1: Clarity, Creativity Combat Ills of Juvenile Fines, Fees).

A Different Kind of Education

Politicians and the public make assumptions about juvenile offenders that aren’t always true because of their apathy toward kids they believe deserve punishment, according to Marc Levin, policy director at Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice advocacy group, and director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Children often wind up in the juvenile justice system because they are reacting to trauma in their lives, Levin explained. Many boys are reacting to violence in the home or gun violence in their neighborhoods whereas girls get picked up for running away from violence in their homes, he said.

But Guttman said the common denominator with most kids in juvenile detention centers is that they have been told every step of the way that they are bad kids.

During her time teaching in detention centers, Guttman said she regularly met opposition to her requests for educational programming from other staff members who thought the kids deserved punishment rather than education.

The culture inside detention centers can be toxic, Guttman said. Guards regularly insult or scream at juvenile offenders, she said.

That means teachers end up having to educate kids beyond standard subjects, Guttman explained. Teachers need to instruct kids on self-worth and emotional intelligence, she said. That requires reinforcement every time they do something right, she added.

Corrections-Run Education Programs

Perhaps the most apparent problem with schools run by corrections agencies is a lack of accountability, Domenici said.

Regardless of how people feel about governmental programs that determine funding based on performance grades, Domenici said those systems at least offer a structural framework that seeks to hold schools accountable.

If a public school got an F-rating under one of those accountability systems, it would get shut down and revamped, he explained. But when a detention center school gets an F, nothing happens, he said.

Detention center schools gets Fs almost every year, Domenici said.

Schools that receive grades can usually plan on certain amounts of funding in advance so they can determine how to best use the money, he said. Programs in detention centers usually get a low-set amount determined without consideration for how many children or teachers are in the school.

“It’s a line item in a big bureaucracy,” Domenici said.

Levin said these programs also run into snags when students try to leave the program and re-enroll in a public school. Credits don’t always transfer, which means state juvenile justice facilities need to make phone calls and prevail upon school districts to let students back into public schools, he said.

Teachers as Government Employees

Tenuous funding usually means that teachers in detention center schools don’t receive ongoing training like those in public schools, Domenici explained.

Additionally, when schools are under the oversight of corrections agencies, teachers are considered government employees and subject to the same slow hiring processes, he said.

Teachers also get the same amount of vacation time as government employees without restrictions on when they can take it because detention center schools are open year-round, Domenici said. That results in massive absenteeism in teaching staffs, he said.

Students in detention centers can’t attend classes unless the staff and teachers meet a certain ratio of caregivers to kids, he explained. So without restrictions on when they can take leave, Domenici said many teachers will come in around the holidays, knowing that there isn’t enough staff to bring the students to class, but then call out the week after so they wind up with two weeks of pay without work.

School Board-Run Education Programs

In some instances, the local school board oversees the education programs in detentions centers. For example, they have access to computer software that can keep track of student records, as compared to a government agency that uses a case management system, Domenici said.

But even though they may have more capability for delivering education, these systems are fraught with their own problems.

While teachers are better able to receive training because they work for the school board instead of a department of corrections, both Domenici and Levin said detention center schools can become repositories for “throwaway teachers.” That includes ineffective educators districts can’t fire, such as those with tenure on the brink of retirement, Domenici and Levin said.

Even when teachers in the programs are involved with their students, they encounter practical difficulties like a classroom full of students who have different proficiency levels, Levin said. Typically, Levin said a teacher is faced with a class of 20 or more students coming from different grade levels and public schools who are staying for varying lengths of time, making it difficult to administer a lesson that can meet the needs of every kid in the classroom.

School boards also face many of the same challenges with accountability that agency-run programs face, Domenici said. Not only does that include issues of how to apply evaluation factors for a public school system to a unique program, but how to get parents involved in the way that they can get involved with local public schools, he explained.

Parents are often unaware about problems because detention centers are so far away from most residential areas, Domenici said.

That takes away a powerful force for accountability because parents whose children attend local detention centers tend to get just as involved in their children’s education as public school parents, he said. The distance between parents and the detention center makes them less effective advocates, he explained.

“I know if I were told that my kids would just go to the gym for third period, I would be wondering, ‘What the fuck are you guys doing?’” Domenici said.

It usually takes outrage from a parent on the outside to get any change for education problems, but Domenici said those solutions are only temporary and responsive rather than proactive measures designed to work toward systemic change in punishment attitude and apathy.

“There’s a lawsuit and you have litigation and settlement and a three-year action plan that gets you 50 cents on the dollar, and then a few years later it falls apart again,” he said.

What Works

While different approaches work for different programs, the two solutions that have had the most universal success are motivating administrators to petition government for more funding and awareness, and moving away from the detention center model to community-based alternatives, Domenici and Levin said.

Some states and counties have tried teaching-specific solutions—such as bringing schoolwork from each student’s public school or using teachers more like proctors who oversee individual work done at a computer—to varying degrees of success, Levin said.

Domenici also cited programs that seek to include parents more by having open houses like traditional public schools or teachers reaching out to parents more about their children’s academic progress.

However, both Domenici and Levin agreed that the most successful programs are those that steer away from faraway detention centers and bring students back into communities, oftentimes in smaller group homes that allow them to attend regular school. Yet bringing legislators around to the idea that closing detention centers to reinvest money in community programs can be difficult because many believe those children should be punished, Domenici explained.

A program in New Orleans saw students moved from detention centers more than 100 miles outside the city to a local location, Domenici said. The program there allowed for parents to stay actively involved in their children's education by giving them the opportunity to visit their children and meet educators at the school, he said.

The key to bringing similar programming to other areas boils down to the people who work in the system, he said.

“There’s some pretty interesting stuff happening in a lot of pockets and some are system-based and some are just really passionate people,” Domenici said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at

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