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Juvenile Justice and Education

This week’s Colorado Reengagement Network call with Patrick Hedrick from the City and County of Denver prompted us to take a closer look at the intersection between the juvenile justice system and education. This topic is particularly relevant to CYC, as nearly one-third of the students served last year were involved with the court system.

We understand that early interventions, student engagement, and social-emotional learning are important to keeping young people out of the justice system. But when a student gets in a situation where they are detained, it is just as important to remember that a quality education is vital to the future success of all young people. As Patrick Hedrick pointed out on this week’s call, education may be the only constant in a student’s life. And for those that get back on a positive path forward, it requires at least one caring adult in their life.

Nationally, while educational data on youth who are incarcerated is limited, information from the Juvenile Law Center shows some surprising statistics:

  • 60,000 youth are incarcerated every day. (from LOCKED OUT: Improving Educational and Vocational Outcomes for Incarcerated Youth. November 2015)
  • Of those youth incarcerated, at least one in three is identified as needing or already receiving special education services – a rate four times higher than youth attending school in the community.
  • Two-thirds of those incarcerated are youth of color, and the majority are overage and under credit and have been suspended multiple times and/or expelled from their local school.
  • 66% of youth in the juvenile justice system drop out of school.
  • Only 1% of justice involved youth graduate from college.

According the 2018-2020 prevention plan submitted by the state’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Council and other agencies, this issue is a complex one. “Colorado has been exploring the concern of youth penetrating its juvenile justice system, possibly less because of criminal behavior and more because the myriad of needs they present: mental health, substance abuse, child welfare history, trauma, just to name a few.”

Because young people involved in the child welfare or justice system fare better in schools in their community, CYC is doing its part to address this very complex issue and help those we are able to reengage with a quality education.

“Folks within the juvenile justice system have started to recognize that school is not a one size fits all model, and there is a lot of nuance to reengagement when you take into account students with IEPs, school safety plans, and risk factors they may be facing. Because of that, Tess (staff member featured below) and CYC are now better positioned to provide support for this specific population.” Nick Conner, CYC Program Director

We reached out to Tess Cameron, CYC Reengagement Specialist working from the Denver Juvenile Service Center, for some information and insights.

What is the process a student goes through to return to school from the Juvenile Justice system?

Youth are released from detention and assigned an officer or case manager to supervise them. The students on my caseload are referred to me through their probation officers, diversion officers, pre-trial case managers, and through the HYPE day reporting program. Once they are on my radar, we set up an intake, complete school tours, and I assist them with enrollment.

How long does it take?

Unfortunately, it’s not consistent. It depends on how long it takes their officer/case manager to reach out to me. Some officers will email me directly after their first meeting with a youth, some wait for longer periods of time. After that, it depends on enrollment periods for the schools we tour – sometimes we are able to get a youth enrolled and in classes the next day; sometimes we have to wait a month or more.

What educational supports are they provided in their detention?

Gilliam Youth Services has instruction that youth are supposed to participate in during their detainment but they’re typically not there long enough to earn credit. Youth at Ridgeview tend to be there for longer periods of time and often earn credit and sometimes their GED while at the facility.

What do you think are a few of the biggest challenges students face in coming back to school after being in Juvenile Justice system?

  • Finding positive peer groups/finding a school where they don’t have connections to people who don’t support their success.
  • Navigating the system and understanding what schools are available to them.
  • Stigma/judgement about being involved in the justice system and having a probation officer, ankle monitoring bracelet, etc.

What are some of the key factors in a successful transition back to school?

  • An identified, trusted adult at the school where they plan to reengage.
  • Welcoming and non-judgmental school onboarding and orientation.
  • Support from a family member, friend, or CYC reengagement member.

What options does CYC provide a student who wants to return to school?

We ask a variety of questions in the intake which are aimed at getting to the know the student and what makes them feel safe and successful. Based on that information, I typically narrow it down to 2 or 3 schools that would be a good fit and that’s the point at which we would schedule tours. If a student doesn’t like the schools we tour, or knows of other programming, I’m always open to exploring additional options with them even if it’s not my first choice for them personally.

How many students do you work with or have you worked with this year?

25 and growing!

Is there a better way to deal with this situation? Is it better prevention, more supports in incarceration, special programs for reintroduction?

I think we are making progress but there’s a long way to go. The sooner we make contact with a student who leaves detention, the more success we see.

Why did you get involved with this particular issue?

I’m passionate about being an advocate for people who have to navigate a complicated system on their own and want to be involved in my community in a way that supports equity for all members.


Want to learn more? Visit these resources to learn more.

CO Division of Criminal Justice
Coalition for Juvenile Justice
Juvenile Law Center

CYC Administrator

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