Pipeline to Prison: How the Juvenile Justice System Fails Special Education Students

Photo by Jackie Mader / Hechinger Report

By and  / The Hechinger Report

Toney Jennings was illiterate when he was arrested at age 16. In the six months he spent at the Lowndes County Jail in Eastern Mississippi, he says he played basketball, watched TV and “basically just stayed to myself.” 

A special education student, Jennings qualified for extra help in school. Those services should have carried over to the justice system, but Jennings said he never even attended class while in jail. Now 20, he is still unable to read or write.

Each year, thousands of Mississippi teens cycle through the justice system, where experts say the quality of education is often low. Incarcerated juveniles have the same educational rights as those outside – five hours of instruction a day that meet their learning needs, including special education. The state does not currently track how many of those juvenile offenders are entitled to extra education services, but according to a 2010 federal survey, 30 percent of youth in custody of the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed learning disability – six times the amount in the general population. Following several lawsuits, Mississippi has worked to improve the quality of education for all students in the system, with some successes.

Still, many of the kids who need help the most, like Toney, aren’t getting it, experts say. These students tend already to be academically behind, and encounters with the justice system early on only increase the likelihood that they’ll drop out of school or end up incarcerated as adults.

“Every day they’re not getting a real education, then that’s a day that we’ve lost,” Sue Burrell, a staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center said. “The kids that are in juvenile justice cannot afford to lose those days.”

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