Teaching jailed students: What’s wrong with the system, and why can’t it be fixed?

Don Austin, sitting in a Hennepin County jail cell, was 15 when he decided he wanted to learn to read — really, really wanted to learn.

In April 2008, he stole a car and caused an accident that killed a woman. He spent the next 20 months locked up in Hennepin jails while the court system worked out whether he would be tried as an adult.

While he waited to go to trial, Austin was supposed to have the same six-hour school day as any other Minnesota child, including two hours of special education. Instead, for much of that time, he got just an hour a day.

In jail, literally captive, Austin fell in love with reading. For the first time in his life, he asked if he could spend more time in class. Minneapolis Public Schools’ answer: No.

“He was asking his teacher to let him go to school,” said Amy Goetz, founder of the School Law Center in St. Paul and Austin’s attorney. “It’s incomprehensible that he would be asking for education and not getting it.”

What went wrong, and why can’t a broken system be fixed?

Austin’s situation prompts two lawsuits
Answers to questions like those — and a solution for Austin, who could only read at a fourth-grade level — have become the focus of two lawsuits. His case also led to a state investigation that revealed serious gaps in the way Minneapolis delivered special education to incarcerated students.

Statistics compiled by advocates for the learning disabled indicate that Austin’s story is hardly unique to him or to Minneapolis.

Don Austin
MN Dept. of Corrections
Don Austin

According to the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice, the lack of appropriate educational services in jails and prisons has been the focus of at least 47 class-action lawsuits in recent decades. None of the cases has involved Minnesota facilities; several have involved juveniles being held in adult facilities.

Beyond the personal toll on individuals when an education system breaks down, advocates note the resulting costs for society as a whole, including losses suffered by crime victims, mounting costs in the criminal justice system, joblessness and, ultimately, the cost of imprisonment.

Minnesota spends 3.7 times as much per prisoner as it does per public school student. According to census data, the state has the 20th-highest juvenile incarceration rate in the nation, with 259 of every 100,000 children imprisoned.

The National Council on Disability, a federal agency, estimates that 30 percent of children in the juvenile justice system have learning disabilities. Other studies put the figure as high as 70 percent. Poor, minority children are particularly at risk.

About 15 percent of the general population has some kind of neurological disorder that makes reading, writing, processing instructions and other tasks difficult without specialized support. Someone with dyslexia, for instance, can’t understand written words the way other students do.

Children with such learning disorders usually are as smart as their peers. Some have another disability, such as attention deficit disorder, autism or behavioral disorders.

More than half of state’s jailed juveniles are learning disabled
In Minnesota, more than half of incarcerated juveniles have some kind of learning disability, according to the PACER Center, and a third of incarcerated children have a persistent mental health issue, as opposed to 14 percent of all kids.

Kids in the juvenile justice system are twice as likely to have been abused, and 75 percent qualified for free- or reduced-price lunch, vs. 39 percent of students statewide.

“They often feel frustration and isolation in school,” explained Lili Garfinkel, coordinator of PACER’s Juvenile Justice Project. “They often have few friends; many are bullied; and they may ‘act up’ to cover the fact they are unable to participate as equals in their classroom.

“They may not have the language or social skills to navigate appropriate interactions in school,” Garfinkel noted. “The behaviors may be serious enough to cause them to be suspended truant, or, in more serious cases, expelled. By not attending school, however, they become further behind and overwhelmed.”

Girls with unaddressed learning disabilities often act out by withdrawing, while boys can become defiant or aggressive, experts say. Making things worse, some learning disabilities are accompanied by communication problems and poor comprehension.

“Such characteristics cause children with disabilities to appear ‘uncooperative,’ ‘disrespectful,’ ‘angry,’ and ‘irritable,’ and act to increase the likelihood that these youths will have negative encounters with the juvenile justice system,” a 1995 study found.

The cycle is particularly pernicious for African-American boys, who frequently end up in alternative schools; few of them graduate.

“Almost always when you look at their records, you see kids who were turning over tables in the fourth grade when it was time to read,” said Goetz. “As they feel their education program is a failure, they act out. They spill out into the community. Kids like Don feel helpless and hopeless, and there are all those temptations out there.”

Once a learning disability has been diagnosed, a student often ends up with a formal plan for services known as an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. School administrators are legally obligated to follow a student’s IEP unless they go through a complicated process involving the student’s parents to change it.

Austin’s IEP called for a full day of regular school and two hours of special ed every day, but once he was transferred to the Hennepin County Adult Detention Center, he got one hour of instruction total. The Minneapolis district argued that the small size of classes in the adult facility made them the equivalent of special ed.

State complaint filed to address ongoing problems
In February 2009, Goetz and Jim Mayer, an attorney at Frederickson and Byron, filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Education, claiming that the school district was violating Austin’s rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In July, the Minneapolis district agreed to settle the case: Austin would get two hours a day of special education and $13,000 would be put in trust for him to use to attend barber school after he graduates from high school. Because no one expected Austin to still be in jail awaiting trial when the new school year started, the settlement did not address the length of the regular school day.

But legal wrangling over whether Austin would be tried as an adult dragged on, and when school got under way again, he did not get the two hours a day the settlement promised. Instead, the district simply changed Austin’s IEP to conform to the amount of teacher time the district could provide him.

“As soon as the ink was dry, and the school year started, they reverted to form,” Goetz complained. “There was nothing consistent about what he was getting but inconsistency. For the district just to continue to flout its responsibilities is just amazing.”

In April, Goetz, Mayer and another School Law Center attorney, Atlee Reilly, filed a second suit against the district on Austin’s behalf. He deserves compensation for lost instructional time, Goetz said, but more than that, Minnesota’s juvenile offenders need a court to clarify the obligations of the various agencies involved.

Austin wasn’t the attorneys’ only concern. In response to his original complaint, the state Department of Education had audited files at both Hennepin’s adult and juvenile jails and determined that every student whose records they looked at had the same problem as Austin.

Last fall, the department found itself and the district in violation regarding special education in the adult jail. As a result, Minneapolis now provides six hours of instruction each day in both jails, according to a statement prepared by district administrators in response to MinnPost’s questions.

“Until [the state Department of Education] issued its complaint decision on October 20, 2009, there was no clear guidance as to the level of educational services required to be provided in adult jails, especially pre-conviction/sentencing detention centers such as that found in Hennepin County,” the district explained. “Minneapolis is one of the few school districts in Minnesota (possibly the only district) that provides educational services at this level to residents in an adult jail.”

Programs can work, but not without adequate funding
Those services are considered crucial to keeping a delinquent from reoffending. The more education prisoners receive, the less likely they are to be re-arrested or re-imprisoned.

Prison-based literacy programs are significantly more effective than boot camps or “shock” incarceration, and quality reading programs can reduce recidivism by 20 percent, according to the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice. Sixty percent of convicts overall will reoffend, versus 10 percent of inmates with two years of college.

As effective as services to inmates are, catching learning disabilities in a child’s earliest years is far, far better. According to a cost-benefit analysis by the RAND Corp., each million dollars spent on early intervention prevents 11 serious crimes.

“Early identification is the first thing,” said the PACER Center’s Garfinkel. “The more a disorder goes unaddressed, the more likely you will have a kid with defiance and anger and depression.”

Instead of assuming a child doesn’t want to study or can’t learn, educators and parents should see continued academic failure as a red flag signaling the presence of an undiagnosed problem, she added. “Kids will say things that are totally inappropriate because their social functioning is so affected by the learning disability.”

When a disorder has been diagnosed, educators today have access to excellent instructional methods and technology. Services are expensive, though, and the burden of paying for them falls disproportionately on large urban districts like Minneapolis, which spends $83 million a year on special education.

School districts are required to provide all students with the services they need to receive an “adequate” education, but state and federal special-ed funding doesn’t come close to reimbursing the true cost. The federal government is supposed to foot 40 percent of the bill but has paid just 17 percent for decades — the lone exception the stimulus money that currently pays 34 percent.

The state has long underfunded special education, too, never paying more than two-thirds of instructional costs. In 2003, Gov. Tim Pawlenty capped state funds, forcing local districts to raise taxes and cut mainstream programming to close the gap.

Special ed may seem expensive, but it pales next to the cost of the social problems caused by neglect, said PACER’s Garfinkel. “The more I do this, the more I go back to it being a public health issue,” she said. “It’s not just the kid’s future, it’s the impact on the whole community.”

Goetz agrees and cites Austin’s case. “Somebody died because of a mistake he made — talk about costs,” she said. “Would a better education have made a difference? Who knows? It certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

“We’re cheap,” she concluded of society, “but you know, we keep building prisons.”

Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.

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