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Defenseless children photo from the Juvenile injustice series

Sometimes schools and prisons seem the same thing. But they aren't. Let's keep our kids out of them.

As discussions about abolishing collective bargaining consume our thoughts in school reform, let’s not forget about the canaries in the coalmine of education that show how poorly our schools educate our kids. In this Best of Dropout Nation from November, I note why it is important to focus on reforming our nation’s woeful juvenile justice systems. Instead of being the centers of caring that original advocates such as Hannah Kent Schoff once wanted, it is a wasteland for kids who need better. Read, consider and take action.

Just 12 percent of former juvenile prison inmates have ever graduated from high school (or received a GED), according to a 2005 report by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Read it again: A mere one out of every eight juvenile prisoners will likely graduate from high school. The very fact that so few kids from juvenile is shocking, but at the same time, not surprising. When kids end up in the juvenile justice system, they will end up dropping out of school and into crime.

America spends $5.7 billion on incarcerating juveniles, billions more on the entire juvenile justice system and gets nothing but tragedy in return. Studies in Florida, New York and Virginia suggest that 55 percent of incarcerated juveniles will end up being rearrested, while 56 percent of alleged youth offenders will any previous referral to court will end up back in front of a judge before reaching age 18. And for poor black and Latino kids, juvenile justice is a particular misnomer;  for example, blacks make up 41 percent of all detention caseloads  in juvenile delinquency cases (even though they account for 30 percent of all juvenile delinquency cases).

When a child ends up in a juvenile jail or prison (and yes, that’s what juvenile detention centers and residential centers actually are, jails and prisons), they are unlikely to receive a high-quality education of any kind or even any sort of treatment for the underlying issues that led them into their predicament in the first place. Just 45 percent of incarcerated juveniles spend six hours or more in school while they are in custody; only 51 percent of juvenile prisoners think they are getting a “good” quality of education. The problems for incarcerated juvenile offenders (and those merely facing charges) extend beyond education. Thirty-five percent of juvenile prisoners reported that they spent some time in solitary confinement. Twelve percent of juvenile prisoners report being sexually assaulted by either another inmate or by prison staff. Essentially the damage that can come from ending up in the juvenile justice system — including the denials of due process and sometimes arbitrary behavior of those who are supposed to be its overlords (a matter about which I have reported extensively) — can be worse than the cures that it is suppose to provide.

When it comes to the juvenile justice, the numbers are staggering: Some 2.1 million juvenile arrests were made in 2008, according to the Justice Department. Most of those arrests have nothing to do with the violent offenses; just 96,000 kids were arrested for murder, rape and other dangerous crimes. Property crimes account for 439,600 arrests, while vandalism accounted for another 107,300; drug abuse was the reason why another 180,100 arrests were made while underage drinking accounted for another 131,800. One point eight million cases went through the nation’s juvenile courts in 2007. Sixty-three percent of delinquency cases and 61 percent of status (or illegal because the child is a minor cases led to guilty verdicts; 25 percent of convicted juvenile delinquents and 11 percent convicted status youths will end up in a juvenile prison or jail; the rest will either be on probation (which can be just as onerous as prison time because probation usually lasts until a child reaches age 18 or 21) or another sanction. Either way, the kids are less likely to complete school and more-likely to become dropouts.

For school reformers, addressing the problems of juvenile justice systems is almost as important in stemming the nation’s dropout crisis as addressing literacy. As with special education, school reformers rarely address the nation’s juvenile justice systems and, save for an occasional piece from Andy Rotherham, shy away from it altogether. In some sense, it is understandable: The juvenile justice system can be as complex as American public education; many of the kids who land in it deserve some form of punishment for their crimes.; and the majority of high school dropouts aren’t likely to have spent some time in a juvenile courtroom. At the same time, the juvenile justice system is also scary to school reformers; after all, the complex behavioral and psychological issues are harder to grapple with than matters of teacher quality, and besides, most school reform activists have never gone though a juvenile court.

But reformers must look at juvenile justice for this reason: Far too many kids are landing in court for problems that have as much to do with the failures of American public education as they do with bad parenting and a fraying civic society. Which means that school reformers must be as interested in reforming the juvenile justice system as they are in school reform. Making juvenile justice a more-compassionate system (except in the case of our most-dangerous and murderous youth) would help cut down the dropout crisis and force the reform of public education needed to keep many of these kids out of the wasteland. Just as importantly: With young men making up the vast majority of alleged and convicted juvi offenders, juvenile justice is the canary in the coal mine of education, the sign that we are failing our young men when it comes to education and moral values.

Part of the problem lies with the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities that feeds students — especially young black, white and Latino men — into special education in the first place. Once kids are labeled as learning disabled, they are more-likely than kids in regular ed classes to end up in juvi. Thirty percent of incarcerated youth surveyed by the U.S. Department of Justice were diagnosed as being special ed cases  University of Florida professor Joseph C. Gagnon and his team determined in a 2009 study that between 38 percent and 44 percent of  juvenile inmates were taking special ed classes. Once a juvenile lands in prison, they are unlikely to get any kind of rigorous and intensive reading remediation, thus assuring that they will end up in the prison pipeline as adults.

The over-labeling in turn, along with the discipline problems that lead to juvenile justice, can be traced to the symptom for the nation’s educational failure: Low reading proficiency. As Stanford University researchers Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles determined in a 2006 study, low literacy levels in first grade are strong predictors of long-term disciplinary problems by third grade; essentially kids act out because they realize that they are falling behind their peers, but are unable (or unwilling to) verbalize it. The low levels of literacy contributes to even lower levels of academic achievement; 48 percent of juvenile prisoners function academically below grade level, according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Meanwhile juvenile justice systems (and other elements of the criminal justice system) are being used by schools to deal with matters that were once relegated to principals and parents. Truancy accounted for 38 percent of all status (or illegal only because the child is a minor) cases filed in juvenile court in 2007; they accounted for just 30 percent of all status cases twelve years earlier (schools account for three-quarters of those referrals). In fact, the number of status cases have increased by 31 percent between 1995 and 2007, with courts hearing 35,300 more cases in 2007 than twelve years ago. While some cases, such as underage drinking, should be handled in court, judges are simply ill-equipped to handle the rest because the underlying problems aren’t legal matters, but issues of low quality of education and bad parenting; ungovernability cases (in which kids are refusing to follow parental instruction) simply involve the consequences of poor parenting and thus, parents and other relatives (who file 41 percent of those cases) should be held responsible for actually getting their kids back on the straight-and-narrow.

Juvenile court systems such as those in Indianapolis, Ind. (whose scandal and overhaul I have reported on) have shown that if you reduce the number of referrals made by schools, you can cut down the number of kids flowing into juvenile courts. This should be the norm everywhere. Schools are often referring cases of kids behaving badly that used to be handled with in-school detention. So schools should adapt discipline policies that help kids get on the path to being decent citizens, become studious and help them understand the consequences of their behavior to their peers and to themselves. (Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha offers some examples.)

Another solution goes back to the simplest one of all: Improve reading instruction. Given that 40 percent of all kids will need specialized reading instruction no matter if their parents read to them or not, it is critical that schools adapt reading curricula that has the phonics, whole language and background knowledge information that builds literacy and comprehension. As James Vacco points out in one of his studies, juvenile offenders who improve their reading skills are less-likely to end up back in prison (they are also less likely to end up being diagnosed as being special ed cases). Grassroots activists, school reformers and parents must also get into the game on improving literacy.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be a need for some juveniles to flow into courtrooms. There are going to be some kids who will commit actual crimes and will need to pay penalties to do so. Nor can the reform of American public education solve all the problems that lead to juvenile courtrooms. But improving how schools teach and work with students would go a long way toward stemming the number of kids ending up in the wastelands of poverty and prison.

It isn’t enough to just focus on American public education. The juvenile justice systems also need attention — and fast.

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