Bringing Juveniles Back to School

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As the old adage goes, and bears repeating once again: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best way to assist most students who are re-integrating into a traditional school setting – after a long term suspension, expulsion or out-of-home placement – would have been to keep them in school in the first place.

Unfortunately, in today's educational climate, that is often not an option, particularly for counties and school districts presented with the much more difficult task of assisting juvenile offenders, who have been absent from school due to out-of-home placement or incarceration, re-integrate back into their communities and schools.

Too often schools are left out of the process until the ex-offender shows up on their doorstep after incarceration. Then, school officials can actually resist having the offender attend their school out of concerns for safety or disciplinary reasons. But, by involving schools from the beginning, we can ensure a smooth enrollment into that school upon the offender’s re-entry into the community.

Education is a key component to the success of any individual, doubly so for people with barriers to employment such as a criminal record. At 180 Degrees, where we serve both adults and juveniles, too often we see adult men leaving prison after multiple year terms in a facility without a high school diploma or a GED.

These men know from their experience that getting a job and a safe place to live is one hundred times more difficult due in part to their failure to achieve a high school education. We should make sure that the juvenile system assists those who would like to achieve an education  rather than making it more difficult, which will most likely happen when one is severed from his/her school because of an out-of-home placement or long term detention.

In 2010, Los Angeles County embarked on an effort to improve their re-entry system for returning youth, and together with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) developed a broad framework of best practices for juvenile re-integration. Reviewing the highlights of this program will remind us of how important schools are to a juvenile offender re-integration process.

The following five concepts are highlights of that framework:

1) Conduct assessments that can be helpful in planning re-entry. An initial assessment should be made during incarceration and then periodically thereafter and continuing for a prescribed period after release. These assessments should be focused on discovering physical and mental health needs, instances of substance abuse, family supports, educational level, experience, and peer networks.

Plans made with the youth and their families are more effective than those made with-out. This is both because helping to create the plan gives the youth ownership of it, and additionally because all parties involved will be enlisted to help keep the plan on track. Thus it?will be more likely that the plan will be individualized to each youth's specific situation and thereby greatly increases their chance of success.

2) Focus on the transition process. Returning youth should be placed in an environment that will cause them as little stress as possible, particularly in the initial period which can last for several months in some cases. Stress is a critical factor and unchecked it will lead to recidivism. Returning to their home and to the school which, in most cases, is the same school that expelled them would be stressful for anyone. But starting over in a totally different and strange place may be much worse. For this reason it is important to work in concert with both school and community resources in order to ease the transition as much as possible and to begin the re-integration process while the youth is still incarcerated. 180 Degrees, Inc has found the use of furloughs from the out of home placement is helpful in this process.  Releasing the young offender for a few hours, then a day, perhaps a weekend, and so on allows the youth to stay connected their community and their school.  These visits can help to keep school administrators stay involved in the young offender’s life and to plan to receive this youth back in their school at some point.

3) Individualized aftercare for youth development programming. Probation officers in particular can play a key role here by helping to remove barriers to re-enrollment in school and helping youths get jobs or join after-school activities such as sports and clubs. Equally important is making sure that each youth continues their individualized treatment for mental and physical disabilities and substance abuse treatment.

A clear system of graduated sanctions and rewards can go a long way to mediate poor behavior that may crop up during the transition period. Poor behavior should not immediately result in a return to incarceration nor should it result in the young person being expelled from school. The longer the individual can be kept in the community and in school the better their overall chance of success.

4) Collaboration. Having clear roles for ongoing programs in federal, state and local governments avoids confusion and ensures that the individual youth will not slip through the cracks. Collaboration via multiple branches helps to ensure access to critical resources and each re-entry plan should envision a holistic approach in dealing with school and with mental and physical well-being components such as family life, community ties, work places and various mentor and support programs in which a youth may be engaged.

5) Implementation and evaluation. Many programs have excellent ideas on paper but poor implementation in actuality due to lack of resources, staff training, personnel or leadership. It may be unclear which agency is responsible for a specific program component resulting from inter-agency cooperation. The clear assignment of roles among agency partners is extremely important.  

This is just one example of many successful programs across the country where probation, courts, and schools work together from the moment the juvenile is arrested in order to keep them connected to the educational opportunities they so desperately need. Remember, those students who successfully complete high school have a much better chance of succeeding in life.

We need to reform how we discipline students. We need to emphasize opportunities to complete an education and mitigate those practices which make it almost impossible for a juvenile offender to return to a high school and complete the curriculum. We must ensure that we do not spend more time on the student's failure than we do on their success.

Youth, just like adults, need a holistic approach to re-entry. Plans to assist them with re-integration back into their families, schools and communities should begin as soon as their incarceration starts. Getting specialized agency support coupled with personal involvement from their communities and families will give them the foundation and direction to keep themselves focused on the straight and narrow path which will ultimately bring them to success.

Richard Gardell is CEO of 180 Degrees in Minneapolis, a provider of prevention and intervention services for juveniles and adults. Gardell was a police officer for 31 years, including five years as assistant chief with the St. Paul Police Department.