The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a report about the education challenges incarcerated youth face, called Credit Overdue. After exploring legislation, policies, and real-life experiences of youth in multiple states, the SPLC uncovered a troubling trend: many students who serve time in juvenile detention are not awarded credit for the coursework they complete at the facilities. As an alternative school teacher who works with many students who have been released from detention facilities, I have seen firsthand how detention further alienates students from their education and contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Many students who serve time in juvenile detention are not awarded credit for the coursework they complete at the facilities. Click To Tweet
The report cites that there are currently about 48,000 youth in detention facilities at any given time. When students are involved in the justice system and sent to residential programs, they are not only taken away from their community but they experience disruption to their education. Depending on the type of youth facility, between 9 and 17% of students always get credit for the coursework they have completed. That means as much as 91% of students are not guaranteed credit despite completing school-work during their sentence – how is that possible? Let’s unpack that report.
When students are placed in residential facilities, they cannot choose to wait until summer break or after they complete their semester at their home school. Instead, they are ripped from their communities, families, and school, and besides the other aftershocks of that situation, their education will suffer greatly. This is despite the fact that they will be doing school-work while incarcerated.
If they are put in juvenile detention before finishing coursework at their regular school, whatever work they have completed there will have been useless and they will lose the credit they were working toward. Additionally, once they are in a residential facility, things will only become more complicated and unstable. They may be transferred to different facilities every few weeks which will disrupt their coursework and ability to earn credit while in detention. Logistically, it is a nightmare. The district they were ripped from must provide paperwork to the detention facility, and then each time the student is transferred to a new residential placement, their course information has to be transferred again. In this process, there are delays, missing or incomplete paperwork, or lost paperwork which precludes them from continuing to earn credit.
When an incarcerated youth is eventually released, their home district is not required to accept the credits they earned in juvenile detention. Often, those districts do not accept the credits and the student falls even further behind. SPLC cites that 27% of facilities surveyed are placing students in courses that do not meet state or district content standards. Due to being transferred, some students may have completed school work over the course of a few months but not actually earned any credit from the detention facility. Those students who have earned credit have often earned much fewer than their peers at regular schools in the same period of time. Lastly, many facilities only provide GED courses, which do not transfer to the local districts as part of a graduation plan.
Many students who successfully complete their sentence in a juvenile detention facility are often automatically placed in alternative schools. As a teacher in an alternative school, these campuses serve a specific purpose, and not all students who have been in detention need to be placed in an alternative setting. Additionally, the report cites that many alternative schools exacerbate problems, and they are not wrong: some alternative schools allocate credits differently than the traditional schools which results in more wasted coursework when students transfer. There are also fewer course options which may leave gaps in students’ transcripts as they try to catch up on their coursework. Some alternative schools have policies that further alienate students from education with harsh discipline practices that can even land them back in a facility.
Students who are released from juvenile detention and denied credits are more likely to miss school when they return to their community, they are more likely to drop out, and they lose enrichment opportunities like participating in sports or… Click To Tweet
Students who are released from juvenile detention and denied credits are more likely to miss school when they return to their community, they are more likely to drop out, and they lose enrichment opportunities like participating in sports or other activities. Many students who fall behind and struggle to make up their credits face “aging-out”: where the student gets to an age the state will no longer provide them a free education, despite them not having the credits to graduate.
Within our juvenile justice system, we also have an overrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, and other students of color, students with disabilities, undocumented students, students who identify as LGBTQ+, and English Language Learners. Most residential facilities have inadequate resources to serve students with disabilities or who are designated as ELL. Girls who end up in the juvenile justice system face unique challenges: there are few facilities that cater to girls, those facilities often have fewer resources, are less likely to offer credit-bearing courses, and have fewer course options. All of this aggravates our school-to-prison pipeline.
There are many levels to this problem. First, we have a problem at the juvenile detention level. They are not providing ample, quality education opportunities for youth in their facilities. Students should have access to the same credits their non-incarcerated peers are earning, at the same pace, without disruption to their graduation path. At the district level, we need those credits to be recognized, the paperwork to be processed quickly, and for these students to be welcomed to traditional schools if that is an appropriate placement. For alternative schools, there needs to be quality in coursework, more course options, and the ability to take those credits to a traditional school if desired. At all levels, there needs to be alternative paths to a high school diploma. Lastly, there needs to be legislation that ensures consistency and equity in these processes at all levels.
The report calls for drastic reform, besides what has been outlined above. We need to close youth residential facilities and stop incarcerating students. Instead, the report suggests community-based solutions that keep students close to home and in their local education system. Since this is unlikely to happen swiftly, SPLC offers a multitude of suggestions to ensure accountability, consistency, and equity within the system that currently exists.
We are supposed to provide all students a free, quality, and equitable education. We know there is so much work to be done to ensure this, but let us not forget that our incarcerated students deserve it too.
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