Lessons from "Kids for Cash," Part 5: Disruptions in Education Disrupt Lives

Juvenile Law Center,

This is the fifth blog post in our Lessons from "Kids for Cash" blog series, which explores some of the critical issues facing youth today that were brought to light by the "kids-for-cash" scandal and are depicted in the new film "Kids for Cash." "Kids for Cash" is currently playing in theaters across the country.

As we mentioned in a recent "Kids for Cash" blog post, Hillary Transue was 14 years old when she created a fake MySpace page for her assistant princiapl in Luzerne County, PA. When she was contacted by law enforcement officials several months later, she hardly remembered that it existed. The police officer assured Hillary's mother, Laurene, that the court would go easy on her daughter. But when Laurene contacted Juvenile Law Center in 2007, her daughter had been removed from school and was serving a 90-day sentence in a wilderness camp for delinquent girls.

Juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella had adjudicated Hillary delinquent and ordered her placement. Ciavarella regularly spoke at Luzerne County schools, telling students that he would lock them up for school-based misbehavior. Schools frequently used Ciavarella as their disciplinarian.

Very few youth who return to school from the juvenile justice system make it through high school, because system involvement often leads to educational disruptions that can be hard to overcome.

After Juvenile Law Center secured her release (Hillary spent three weeks at the camp), she faced difficult challenges upon returning to school. She was viewed by teachers and administrators as "one of those kids who had been sent to camp" and had fallen behind academically.

Hillary overcame those challenges, graduated from high school, and has since graduated from college. Hillary is the rare exception. Very few system-involved youth make it that far.

Youth who are removed from their homes and sent to juvenile justice placements often face severe disruptions in their education, preventing them from succeeding in school. These disruptions occur for the following reasons:

1. Educational credits from juvenile justice facilities may not be accepted at the child’s public school when they return. This can happen when the curricula at the juvenile justice facility differs dramatically from that of the student’s home school. Many students at facilities end up taking elective courses that don’t fulfill the graduation requirements of their local school districts, or they transfer to a facility in the middle of a semester and miss earning credits for that semester at their local school. Additionally, some juvenile justice facilities may not even keep track of credits.

2. On-grounds schools often do a poor job at administering education. On-grounds schools may not properly implement Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), meaning they aren’t meeting kids’ special educational needs. In addition, on-grounds schools must do a better job at attracting high-quality teaching staff: teachers at on-grounds schools often lack access to professional development opportunities, and many view a teaching job in a juvenile justice facility as a “last resort” or a security risk. Many juvenile justice facilities limit or deny students’ use of up-to-date technology because of security concerns; such policies limit students’ opportunities for learning and place them at a disadvantage when they return to their local schools.

After her stint in wilderness camp, Hillary recalls sitting in her probation officer's waiting room, fully visible to classmates through a large glass window in the office.

3. Records may not transfer promptly from school to facility or between facilities.  When records are delayed, the facility does not know the student’s proper grade level or if he or she has special education needs that must be met.

4. Students returning from the juvenile justice system are often rerouted into alternative-education programs or treated as “troublemakers.” Alt-ed programs, while appropriate for some, can create more setbacks for those who would learn better in a traditional educational environment. Inappropriate referrals to alternative education programs make reintegration more difficult. Even those who aren’t funneled into alt-ed programs may still be stigmatized through treatment by teachers and by having to report to their probation officers in school; after her stint in wilderness camp, Hillary recalls sitting in her probation officer’s waiting room, fully visible to classmates through a large glass window in the office.

5. Youth returning to school after placement often face a host of social challenges and stigmas. Friendships and other support systems are often disrupted, as other parents are reluctant to encourage their children to maintain friendships with a “juvenile delinquent.” School-related activities are also often disrupted, including sports and other team activities that can provide invaluable learning opportunities and potential scholarships.

Facing challenges like these, it’s no wonder that system-involved youth are more likely than their peers to be chronically absent from school or to perform below grade level.

The consequences of missing educational and social engagement opportunities while in placement cannot be underestimated. Crucial cognitive and social developments occur during a child’s elementary and high school years—missing significant school-based events heightens the feeling of being an outsider. Schools are considered to be one of the most important protective factors in the social development research spectrum, providing a source of insulation against further risky behaviors. Removing children from school removes those added protections, actually placing the youth at greater risk for developing problem behaviors. Without appropriate attention and care in both schools and juvenile justice facilities, system-involved children will continue to suffer educationally and socially.

How Can We Solve This Problem?

1. Limit incarceration to only the most dangerous offenders and ensure that youth who are incarcerated are housed in small, humane, and safe facilities that promote education and rehabilitation. The most effective way to ensure that system-involved youth don’t face educational disruption is to keep them out of the system. If they must be sent to an out-of-home placement for public safety reasons, those placements must make education a priority.

>2. Inform juvenile court judges about the educational issues facing system-involved youth. Once informed, juvenile court judges can ensure that youth are either diverted or sent to placements that provide appropriate educational programs.  In jurisdictions in where judges have continued oversight of juveniles in placement, courts should monitor youths’ educational progress, both in the juvenile justice system and in their home community. Children’s lawyers must also enforce children’s educational rights even while in placement.

The most effective way to ensure that system-involved youth don't face educational disruption is to keep them out of the system. If they must be sent to an out-of-home placement for public safety reasons, those placements must make education a priority.

3. On-grounds schools in placement facilities should provide high-quality education that prepares youth for college and 21st-century careers. Academic programs in correctional facilities should be aligned with state standards and local graduation requirements, comply with all state and federal special education protections, and feature up-to-date technology and highly qualified teaching staff who are trained on the unique needs of system-involved youth.  They should offer high quality career and technical education.  Facility programs must also teach “soft” skills, like interviewing and anger management.

4. Supports must be put in place to ensure youth seamlessly transition from on-grounds schools back to their local schools. School districts must promptly re-enroll youth into an appropriate grade or educational setting that meets their individual needs.  While taking care to avoid delaying a youth’s return home, juvenile justice officials should also ensure that a young person has a reentry plan and education placement before the child leaves the justice system. The youth’s education records and all credits earned while in placement should promptly transfer to the new educational placement to ensure system-involved young people do not fall further behind.

For More Information on This Topic:

“Recommendations to Improve Correctional and Reentry Education for Young People,” by Juvenile Law Center, Open Society Foundations, Pennsylvania Academic and Career/Technical Training Alliance, the Racial Justice Initiative, and the Robert F. Kennedy Juvenile Justice Collaborative (2013)

Juvenile Law Center’s Education of Children in Residential Facilities in Pennsylvania page (2013)

“Addressing the Unmet Needs of Children and Youth in the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems,” a paper commissioned by the Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (2010)

“Learn to Earn: PACTT Helps Delinquent Youths Gain Academic and Job Skills,” by Candace Putter, a Models for Change Innovation Brief (December, 2012).