March 10, 2020

Educating Youth in Short-Term Detention

By Hailly T.N. Korman | Max Marchitello

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Each year thousands of youth in America are uprooted from their schools and communities and sent to a juvenile justice detention center. The majority of these confined youth are there for nonviolent offenses, including technical violations, such as failing to complete treatment or violating probation. Even youth awaiting foster care placement can be placed in a detention center. Over the course of a year, we estimate between 90,000 and 170,000 youth spend at least one day in a short-term detention center, and over 40% are detained for more than a month.

While in these facilities, young people are entitled to the same educational opportunities that they would have in the outside world. However, there is little research or data about this population.

In “Educating Youth in Short-Term Detention,” we found that youth’s educational experiences in these facilities often compound, rather than alleviate, the challenges they face. They are commonly unenrolled from their home school once they are arrested, and while detained, youth often do not receive coursework aligned with their needs, nor do they receive credit for the work they complete. Moreover, once they’re released, youth face significant challenges reenrolling in school, so even a brief period in confinement can severely disrupt a youth’s education. 

A number of factors make it difficult to provide high-quality education to youth in detention centers. Student records, as well as Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for youth entitled to special education services, typically are not transferred in a timely fashion. Centers confine youth across a wide range of ages and abilities, making it difficult to tailor curricula and instruction to their needs.  

While considerable progress has been made in redirecting youth away from these short-term detention centers, it is nevertheless important to improve the quality of education offered in these facilities to help youth get back on track. In addition to finding alternatives to detention, we recommend states improve data sharing and records transfers, adopt consistent curricula and course codes, and improve transition planning back to school. 

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