U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. released a set of guidelines Monday aimed at improving education for young people in the nation’s juvenile detention centers, as studies have shown that schooling can be inadequate or inferior to what students would receive in a standard classroom.
Duncan and Holder announced the guidelines in a news conference at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center School in Alexandria, a squat building ringed with barbed wire.
“This announcement is born of the recognition that in this great country, children — and I mean all children — deserve equal access to a high-quality education,” Holder said. “And this is no less true for children who are in the juvenile justice system.”
An estimated 60,000 young people are in custody in juvenile justice centers across the nation on any given day, and many of them already are behind in school. If they receive poor schooling while in custody, it puts them even further behind, officials said.
“We have learned that many of these kids received deficient instruction,” Holder said. “In some troubling cases, they received no instruction at all.”
Juvenile delinquents on Native American reservations are of particular concern, with a Washington Post investigation last month detailing how some languish in facilities without any instruction.
The guidance published Monday outlines the best practices in educating young people in juvenile detention centers. The guidelines clarify the education rights of juvenile offenders in the centers, spelling out, for example, that they have many of the same rights to special education as their peers.
“Youth in confinement, many of whom are students with disabilities and English learner students, are often the students in the greatest need of academic, emotional, and behavioral supports,” officials from the Justice and Education departments wrote. Detention centers that receive certain kinds of federal funding “must ensure that, to the extent feasible, youth in juvenile justice residential facilities have the same opportunities to meet the state’s challenging academic content standards and student academic achievement standards as they would have if they were enrolled in the public schools of the state.”
The guidelines do not create new policy, nor do they expand the authority of federal officials to enforce the provisions. But advocates see their issuance as a sign that federal authorities are taking the education of youths in detention centers seriously and say the guidelines could give those working on behalf of the youths firmer ground to fight for their rights.
“We obviously would like for there to be some teeth,” said Kate Burdick, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. “I’m sure advocates will be using this as a tool to educate facilities about . . . what their current legal obligations are.”
The guidelines also clarify that some incarcerated juvenile offenders are eligible for Pell grants, which have helped millions of poor students attend college. It’s an issue that has been murky since a law was passed two decades ago that made prisoners ineligible for them. The grants could enable young offenders to take college classes while they are in custody.
Duncan said studies have shown that inmates who receive a college education are less likely to offend.
“We want to make sure these educational opportunities are available here while they’re locked up,” he said. “To have them sit here and not progress academically is a tremendous waste of time and energy.”
Officials underscored that an investment in high-quality education for youth offenders could save money. It costs an average of $88,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile offender, and good schooling could reduce the likelihood that young people will be arrested again.