When the Feds Agree With Your Client: Education is Everything

I am waiting in front of my client's school right now, ready to intercept him to share the big news: His feedback on improving education for youth involved in the juvenile or criminal justice systems influenced the federal guidance package released by the Department of Education and Department of Justice on Monday.

For someone else, I would have stopped by his house to share the news last night. But he remains homeless, two years after aging out of the juvenile justice system at age 21. So I wait for him to arrive at school, the only place where he and I both know that he can be found each day—a fact that may seem inspiring or endearing but will, upon reflection, evoke outrage and heartbreak. 

When he arrives, I will share that on Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a guidance package for correctional and reentry education for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. States and local agencies can use this guidance to improve the quality of educational services for confined youth, including during their transition back to the community.  We will talk about the many ways in which it echoes the feedback he provided to the Interagency Juvenile Reentry Committee last year, and why that is so important. 

Outside of the substance of the guidance package, which I will write about separately, there were a few key themes that resonated with me:

  • The guidance reflected and incorporated the feedback and priorities my client provided to stakeholders last year. Far too often, the people affected most by policies have little say in outlining the national or local priorities. For School Justice Project, it was also reaffirming to see the extent to which the collaborative process and stakeholder feedback shaped what was included in this guidance.
  • The focus on correctional education and reentry expands the traditional “school-to-prison-pipeline” discourse. By highlighting the importance of correctional education (rather than solely focusing on preventing younger kids from entering the juvenile system in the first place), this guidance signals what I hope is an expansion of the “school to prison pipeline” discourse. Our clients, the oldest students in the juvenile system, often feel like they have been discarded, despite their federal special education rights. Current practice seems to facilitate a “second pipeline,” funneling these students at the deepest end of the juvenile system directly into the adult criminal system. By unpacking the false dichotomy of “school” or “prison,” we can begin providing the interventions and services necessary to provide meaningful and quality education to students who need the most but too often receive the least.
  • By taking a clear position on students' special education rights—including students in juvenile facilities—the federal government strengthened the substantive legal rights and highlighted its intention to take this issue seriously. The guidance announcement, also linked to President Obama's My Brothers Keeper Initiative, comes at a time in our country where, individually and collectively, we must question the way our justice system functions and the ways in which government action or inaction contributes to the pervasive racial injustice and inequity.

My client has fought so hard for his education, and I am looking forward to hearing his thoughts. I know I'll see him here, regardless of the many other things he has going on in his life. His determination makes him predictable. He'll persevere, focus on his mantra of "education is everything," and share that message with the world to keep the rest of us on track.

To review the guidance and announcement, visit: http://www.ed.gov/correctionaled.

Claire N. Blumenson 
Co-Founder & Co-Executive Director
School Justice Project