Collaboration between Advocates, Facilities, and Government to Achieve Positive Education Outcomes for Incarcerated Youth

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By Ashley C. Sawyer, Esq.
Fellow
Stoneleigh Foundation

“For these are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”
- James Baldwin

Ensuring the well-being of young people in juvenile justice placement means ensuring that they have access to the same opportunities to succeed as other adolescents. Juvenile correctional facilities are ineffective rehabilitation tools, especially because youth in these facilities do not have access to a proper education.

The Education Law Center (ELC) works to ensure that youth in juvenile justice facilities receive the quality education they need. As part of the ELC team, I have had the opportunity to craft policy solutions that address the lack of educational supports in juvenile delinquency facilities.

Many of the vulnerable youth in these facilities have special education or mental health needs that must be met in order for them to graduate from high school and lead stable lives. At ELC, we recognize that many juvenile facilities are not meeting the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), and we try to leverage it as a tool to place pressure on facilities to provide better education to youth in their care.

When engaging with stakeholders and facility personnel, it is important to employ the following strategies:

  • Start with the assumption that everyone wants to do the right thing. When working with facility staff, it is important to remember that they have made a personal commitment to care for the youth in their charge.
  • Talk about the challenges. Share data with stakeholders about these vulnerable youth. For example, only a small percentage of these youth go on to graduate high school. Research has found that adults without high school diplomas are more likely to have shorter lifespans,[1] twice as likely to live in poverty,[2] and 63 percent higher than those with college degrees to be incarcerated.[3] With the stigma of having been incarcerated as a juvenile, these youth face a markedly uphill battle.
  • Educate stakeholders that operate outside the juvenile justice policy realm. Community and policy activists and public interest lawyers use a different set of vocabulary than many direct service providers and juvenile facility personnel. We talk about school climate, positive behavior supports, trauma-informed responses, community-based programs, and family therapy. There must be an ongoing dialogue with policymakers and decision makers in juvenile facilities. Advocates must make an effort to educate and share information in a clear way that juvenile court judges, education department staff, probation officers, and juvenile justice staff can understand. It is equally as important to make sure those stakeholders understand and appreciate the evidence based policy changes that need to happen.


Judges periodically punish youth with disabilities for being unresponsive to disciplinary measures taken against them in school or court. More often, the issue is that the youth has not received the proper educational supports that can allow him/her to make these behavioral changes. In the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, M. Wagner and K. Kutash write, “Youth with emotional behavior disorders commonly have significant communication skills deficits in both expressive and receptive language that likely has an impact on their academic and social success.”[4] Without addressing these issues in communication, the juvenile justice system will remain flawed.

When engaging in conversations with service providers, one must ask, “How can I, as an advocate, support your efforts to serve kids?” ELC recently held a free training, provided by staff from the US Department of Education, for juvenile justice facilities in Pennsylvania. Some, participants were eager to learn more about how to fulfill their legal obligations under IDEA.

Juvenile justice reform advocates must remember to approach service providers with passion, enthusiasm, and a willingness to provide assistance. The two groups may not agree on everything, but we must continue to engage in productive conversations in order to create effective change for the youth we both serve.

Ashley C. Sawyer is Stoneleigh Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania where she advocates for the special and general education rights of Pennsylvania’s incarcerated youth. As a Fellow, she collaborates with many grassroots organizations, including a Philadelphia organization of family members of youth in Pennsylvania’s delinquency facilities. She serves as the co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Legal Rights of Children Committee.


[3] Id.

[4] Wagner, M., Kutash, K. et al, The Children and Youth We Serve: A National Picture of the Characteristics of Students with Emotional Disturbances Receiving Special Education, Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 13, 79-96, 2005.