Meet our 2023 Leadership Prize Winners: Dr. Peter Leone

Jay Kimberley,
Peter Leone Headshot

Dr. Peter Leone is Professor Emeritus of Special Education in the Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education at the University of Maryland, and serves as a member of the Juvenile Services Education Program Board for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services and previously served on the Board of Directors of the Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools for 12 years. Dr. Leone has spent almost 50 years working to support the well-being and educational rights of youth with lived experience in the child welfare and juvenile legal systems.  

His journey as a staunch advocate for youth rights began early in his career as a Resource and Consulting Teacher in the Iowa City, Iowa public school system, on the heels of the passage of the federal Education of Handicapped Children Act (EHA), now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Prior to the passage of IDEA, schools had the ability to bar youth with behavioral and emotional challenges or disabilities. This was not a rare occurrence; schools took full advantage of this process, effectively denying quality education to these youth. 

Between 1974-1978, Dr. Leone worked directly with youth who were engaged in outpatient care in the Child Psychiatry department of the University of Iowa. He discovered early on that about half of the youth he worked with had probation officers. In meeting some of these probation officers and working with these youths, Dr. Leone came to understand more explicitly the circumstances and conditions that these youth faced. What he found was that “kids on the margins, kids of color, kids with disabilities, kids from low-income families are disproportionately represented in institutional settings and they face severe obstacles in reentering the community.”  

His experience in the Iowa public school system drove Dr. Leone to pursue a Ph.D. in Special Education from the University of Washington in Seattle. After finishing his doctoral program in 1981, Dr. Leone took a position with the University of Maryland within their Special Education Program. Over the course of the last 35 years, Dr. Leone has become a fierce advocate for the educational rights of youth in residential and detention facilities across the country. He has participated in class action litigation as an expert witness in cases across 15 states and served as a Special Master, Consultant, Monitor, and Evaluator in a litany of other cases. 

In 1990, Dr. Leone published a collection of 14 papers that present “multidisciplinary perspectives on issues related to the causes, nature, incidence, identification, and provision of services for youth” who had behavioral challenges that lead to poor school performance, or other problems. A prolific writer, in the years since, Dr. Leone has published training materials, journal articles, and selected chapters all focused on enhancing educational service delivery for youth with system involvement.  

At the turn of the 21st century, Dr. Leone joined with colleagues Mike Nelson, Robert Rutherford, Bruce Wolford, and representatives from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to establish the National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice (EDJJ) to increase awareness around the issues that youth in congregate care face, and the disproportionate impacts that these challenges have on children with emotional and behavioral challenges and disabilities. EDJJ published several reports that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) still relies on today. Along with awareness campaigns and data publication, EDJJ also provided training for new professionals in the field, building out what was then just a handful of “trauma-informed” practitioners across the country to a vibrant and swelling community of therapists, educators, social workers, and more today.  

From 2005 to 2011, Dr. Leone served as a member of the Board of Directors for Justice Policy Institute, and from 2011 to 2013 he served as the Chair of the Board. He also took on the role of Acting Executive Director for a brief period in 2013. In the years since, Dr. Leone has noted a shift in the national conversation around educational rights for youth with system involvement. With a greater understanding of the impact of trauma on the mind and body has come more granular conversations about the states’ responsibility to mitigate those harms while still providing adequate educational resources. Dr. Leone continues to dedicate his life to improving conditions for youth in congregate care and continues to be a champion for keeping kids within their communities.  

Juvenile Law Center invites you to celebrate Dr. Peter Leone and his work along with fellow Leadership Prize recipients Xavier McElrath-Bey and Dr. Amanda Alexander on Wednesday, May 10th, 2023 at 6:00pm ET during the 2023 Leadership Prize. You can purchase tickets for the event here. Recipients of the Juvenile Law Center Leadership Prize are leading lights whose inspirational careers are beacons for future generations and whose work has substantially improved the lives of youth. Read more about our 2023 award recipients. 

About the Expert

Jay Kimberley comes to Juvenile Law Center with almost ten years of lived experience in the foster care system. As a ward of the state, Jay saw first-hand the impact that the System can have on a child’s life. Their personal mission in life is to help drive a paradigm shift in the way we as a nation consider comprehensive care for system-impacted youth.