Mental Health Disorders Are Pervasive in the Juvenile Justice System. Here’s How One State Is Addressing It

News
By Rachel Frazin 3-22-2018

Between 50 and 70 percent of the young prisoners in state juvenile justice systems have a mental disability, but an analysis of those systems found that only one state — Indiana — requires all teachers in such facilities to have special education certification.

All 40 teachers in Indiana’s juvenile correctional centers either have special education certification or are required to achieve certification within three years, said Derek Grubbs, the Indiana Department of Corrections’ Director of Juvenile Education.

Grubbs said that after the certification requirement was implemented about 12 years ago, student prisoners’ education progress improved, although he declined to offer data detailing the improvement.

Indiana’s system is a good model because of the higher percentage of incarcerated youths with mood disorders, said Christy Sampson-Kelly, director of practitioner support at the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings. About 20 percent of young Americans experience a mental disorder at some point in their lives – less than half the percentage of young inmates nationwide who have mental disabilities.

A Medill News Service survey of officials from 49 of the 50 state juvenile correctional systems (West Virginia officials could not be reached for comment) found that most other states generally hire special education teachers only in numbers large enough to serve student prisoners who have been diagnosed with a disability. These students often receive Individualized Education Plans, documents that outline students’ unique needs and goals. Most states’ juvenile correctional facilities require their general or subject-specific teachers to have the same certifications as teachers in the state’s traditional school settings.

Representatives from two states, Washington and California, said they have requirements to train teachers to understand students who have different needs or possibly undiagnosed mental health issues. For example, California, educators must have an objective understanding of youth offenders and be willing to work in group-oriented treatment programs. Washington also recommends, but does not require, special education certification due to the large special needs population among incarcerated juveniles.

Sampson-Kelly also said the problems created by not educating juvenile offenders in ways that fully take into account the varying mental issues they have often follow them when they leave the facilities. For instance, the IEPs that incarcerated youth bring with them to prison often are “stripped down” so the facilities can more easily fit them into existing educational programs. When the imprisoned youth leave the juvenile correctional facilities and re-enter mainstream schools, the new “stripped down” plan stays with them because it’s the most recent documentation of their needs available, she said.

Rachel Hobson, director of student support and special education at a New Orleans school for youth awaiting trial, said security staff for juvenile centers often aren’t trained in how to deal with special needs offenders and instead see the students as simply defiant.

She said one of the young people in her facility was constantly in trouble for fighting and that he also assaulted a staff member. But she found out he couldn’t read because he had dropped out of school, that he had been shot several times, and that he saw his brother’s murder. He was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder that had not been diagnosed, Hobson said.

“Even though, yes, he was there for a serious crime, he’s experiencing this loss of power when the secure staff is trying to get him in his room or in his cell. It’s triggering for him and then he’s getting in more trouble,” she said.

Sampson-Kelly said that changes in juvenile corrections education are most necessary at the implementation phase and that evaluators need to spend time at the facilities.

“We need to get there on the ground,” she said.

Rachel Frazin is a junior at Northwestern University studying journalism and political science. She covers education for the Medill News Service. The Florida native has previously worked as an intern at The Palm Beach Post and Injustice Watch. 

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