Attorney general, education secretary visit local juvenile offenders

Attorney general, education secretary visit local juvenile offenders

By Erich Wagner (Courtesy photo)

Senior members of the Obama administration visited the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center Monday to talk with students about the need for educational supports at facilities for young people in custody.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a new effort to improve education in juvenile detention centers as part of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

Holder and Duncan published a package of guidance for education officials outlining best practices to facilitate learning in juvenile justice facilities, from adequately funding education programs and hiring qualified teachers to establishing a rigorous curriculum and instituting programs to prepare students for reentry into the community.

Those may seem like common-sense goals, but Holder said all too often, education programs at juvenile facilities are severely lacking.

“We recognize that children all deserve equal access to high-quality education, even in juvenile detention centers,” he said. “[But] many kids receive deficient instruction, or no instruction at all.

“And others may go to class every day, only to find out upon their release that their class work is not good toward a high school diploma. It’s a lost opportunity to pierce through the cycles of criminality.”

Holder said these deficiencies often hurt children who require the most intervention in their learning.

“Children in juvenile justice facilities are the same children who need our education system the most,” he said. “Around 20 percent of [young people in juvenile detention centers] have disabilities, but less than half of them are getting the services they need.”

Duncan announced that people in juvenile justice facilities who want to take college courses will be eligible for Pell grants. The duo also said their agencies would implement a one-year pilot program promoting the successful reentry of juvenile offenders into the community.

“Education is the only way to break those vicious cycles,” he said. “Recidivism is cut in half if someone takes college classes.”

Duncan held up Alexandria’s juvenile detention facility as a model for facilities across the country. Its education program is run by Alexandria City Public Schools.

“To talk with the students, you hear how appreciated the support here is,” he said. “You can’t fake that.”

According to an ACPS account of the roundtable with students, which was not open to the press because of their status in the juvenile justice system, the children said programming at the detention center has helped them to learn in a more structured manner and also helped them make better decisions.

“Yoga gave me a new perspective on things,” said one student. “I love it. It makes me feel relaxed. Physically it makes my head feel clearer.”

“When I get released, I’m not going to have friends because they are all locked up,” another student said. “But in the future, I’m not going to hang out with people unless they are doing something positive. I’m going to keep myself really busy playing sports and get a part-time job. That way, I will be too busy to hang out on the streets and get in trouble.”

Duncan applauded the students at the roundtable and said he was sure they were on the path to a productive life.

“What I heard was both inspiring and heartbreaking,” he said. “These are intelligent young men who are restoring their potential.”

Part of the new initiative from the departments of justice and education are a reminder that a successful education program is required under federal civil rights law. The goal is to get school and juvenile justice officials onto the right track, not pursue punitive measures, Duncan said.

“We want to hear people’s complains, because we need to better serve the country,” he said. “[A] lot of this is just providing guidance and support to get these districts to the right place.”

Holder said education programs in juvenile detention centers are particularly important, because a youthful indiscretion shouldn’t sentence a child to a lifetime moving in and out of prison.

“Young people make mistakes,” he said. “I was young and I made mistakes. But our youth should not be deprived the chance to better themselves and prepare for law-abiding and productive futures.”