Restoring the Promise of Education for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

Young students who are expelled or suspended are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not. Sadly, a significant number of students are removed from class each year — even for minor infractions of school rules. One study found that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect.

Exclusionary discipline practices tend to disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities (see more). Nationwide, data collected by our Office for Civil Rights show that African-American students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. While black students represent 16% of student enrollment, they represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest.

Gender matters, too.  While boys receive more than two out of three suspensions, black girls are suspended at higher rates (12 percent) than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys. And when looking at disabilities, disparities persist, as well. Although students who receive special education services represent 12 percent of students in the country, they make up 23 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 23 percent of students receiving a school-related arrest.

These are disturbing trends. They call for immediate attention from the education field. We must prevent and work toward eliminating the unnecessary expulsion and suspension of students. If we don’t, we keep strengthening rather than weakening the school-to-prison pipeline. It is our job as educators to ensure that clear, consistent, and appropriate expectations and consequences are in place to prevent and address misbehavior.

These issues and solutions were the focus of a panel discussion on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice. The panel considered how we can best assist youth impacted by contact with the juvenile justice system. Panelists represented academia, the Department of Justice, and the White House Domestic Policy Council.  I had the opportunity to look at the issues from the perspective of the education system and to discuss the Department’s particular role in this work.

Dr. Laurence Steinberg of Temple University used recent research to set the context for the discussion. I talked about our recent and ongoing work at the Department of Education (ED) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) – work that we have been able to undertake together and which is leading to important changes.

First, school discipline, when not done right, too often creates a school-to-prison pipeline.  Powerful voices in the civil rights and legal communities have brought this concern strongly forward. In January, 2014 the civil rights units of ED and DOJ issued a joint Dear Colleague Letter affirming that appropriate school discipline policies and practices can support and reinforce positive in school behavior, establish and maintain positive learning environments, and help provide all students with equal educational opportunity.   This call is augmented by ongoing work at ED and elsewhere to share supportive school discipline practices.

While juvenile justice residential populations have significantly declined, we remain concerned about educational opportunities for youth in these facilities.  ED and DOJ have taken strong steps to better identify how education can and must be provided to institutionalized youth.  Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder together visited a juvenile justice facility in December of 2014, a visit that coincided with the release of a guidance package on correctional education.  We are working now to fully disseminate this information and to encourage the use of this information and related resources.

I shared that ED remains concerned about the disproportionate impact of school disciplinary practices on minority children and on students receiving special education services.  So ED continues to work with school districts across the country in this arena – through data collection, enforcement and technical assistance.  This work is two-pronged and we must remain focused on both prevention and on assisting young people involved with the juvenile justice system. Three examples of this work include:

  • Performance Partnership Pilots (P3) Initiative. Through this interagency effort, up to 10 States, localities, regions, and Tribes will have the unique opportunity to pull federal discretionary funds to test innovative, cost-effective, and outcome-focused strategies for improving results for disconnected youth.
  • Reentry Demonstration Initiative. ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services has launched a re-entry demonstration initiative focused on juvenile justice learners with disabilities – who comprise an estimated 40% of the students in correctional facilities. These three projects, each funded for a four-year period, are aimed at refining and evaluating models that facilitate successful re-entry for youth with disabilities.
  • Correctional education guidance. ED’s Federal Pell Grants guidance released in December clarified that youth in juvenile justice facilities are eligible for these funds, if they meet the applicable eligibility criteria which applies to all other applicants.

It is clear that we are in the midst of significant reform in juvenile justice in our nation.  Our knowledge base has grown.  Policy changes are significant and well-documented, and data show we are moving in the right direction.  Youth crime is down.  Youth incarceration is down – and down very significantly in some states.  We have an increased focus on prevention and youth identified as needing services are now more often receiving those services in the community.  For youth in contact with the juvenile justice system – those who are confined and those supervised in the community – programming options are improving.  And many youth are doing better as a result of these trends. By preparing these youth to achieve their academic and career goals, we also strengthen the families and communities that depend on their success.



photo of Johan Uvin
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Johan E. Uvin is the Acting Assistant Secretary for Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education.