In spite of some signs of improvement, fundamental disparities persist in youth incarceration. The number of youngsters in U.S. correctional facilities has been cut in half—a dramatic drop of 53 percent from 2001 to 2013—according to a Pew analysis of federal data. Still, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child-advocacy group, found “in every year for which data are available, the overwhelming majority of confined youth are held for nonviolent offenses.” And children of color bear the brunt of juvenile-justice policies: Black children are nearly five times as likely, and Latino and Native American youngsters are two to three times as likely, to be incarcerated as are their white peers.
Similar inequities carry over to the learning that happens behind bars. Though confined young people are entitled to an education by law, the quality of the education they receive can vary greatly. The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice issued guidance to states in December 2014 to improve school programs in youth detention. But overall, the education of incarcerated youth is mostly ignored and poorly understood.
Among those working to bring greater visibility to the issue of schooling in juvenile-detention facilities is David Domenici, the director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS), a nonprofit devoted to improving teaching and learning at juvenile-justice schools. In 2013 CEEAS developed “Words Unlocked,” a nationwide poetry contest to amplify the voices and creative talents of incarcerated youngsters. After speaking recently at an education summit hosted by The Atlantic, Domenici offered additional thoughts on why educating students in juvenile facilities deserves more attention and support. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Melinda D. Anderson: “Education is the civil-rights issue of our time” is a recurring catchphrase in education policy, until the topic turns to the civil rights of incarcerated youth. The notion that youth in juvenile detention are “bad kids” who deserve their fate—and thus that educating them is immaterial—is a philosophical hurdle that activists and others engaged in this work must constantly strive to overcome. How do we begin to combat the belief that these children are expendable?
David Domenici: These are not bad kids—they are poor, they have failed at and been failed by our school systems, they are disproportionately kids of color, many are victims of violence and abuse, and they mostly live in under-resourced neighborhoods, wracked by violence and high unemployment. And yes, many are hard to work with, and some have done some bad stuff. [Yet] I was the principal at what’s now known as New Beginnings Youth Development Center (D.C.’s secure facility for adjudicated youth formerly known as Oak Hill Detention Center) for four years. Hundreds of kids passed through Oak Hill during my time there. Not one was white.
I don’t want white kids locked up either—but we have to be honest about this. About 98 percent were black, the rest Hispanic. Almost all of the kids came from a handful of poor, segregated neighborhoods. None attended the city’s magnet schools, or the one integrated, high-performing high school. How is this not a civil-rights issue? If you choose to purposely look at this narrowly—that kid did something wrong, he got caught, he needs to be held accountable—you might be able to convince yourself it’s not a civil-rights issue. But that’s not the full, or honest, look at this.
[That kid] may very well have done a wrong, but how we treat him while he is held in confinement says a lot about [society]. Do we believe that he deserves a fair shot at a decent, meaningful life or not? The kids at [New Beginnings] are our kids, the kids in the 13 probation camps around Los Angeles are our kids, the kids hidden away in facilities all over the state of Florida are ours—unless we decide we don’t want to claim them.
Anderson: The parts of the school-to-prison pipeline become clear when examining the statistics on incarcerated youth. Youth-detention facilities are the end of a path that starts with the overuse of exclusionary school discipline, such as out-of-school suspensions. From your perspective as an educator and advocate, what can teachers and school leaders do to dismantle this pipeline?
Domenici: This is in part about having the will and determination, and in part about resources. School districts and charter networks that really want to address this need to close down their mandatory “alternative” schools and their suspension and expulsion schools. If you want to see really dysfunctional schools, just go visit the designated alternative schools in any city around the country. These schools are just dumping grounds where schools throw kids they don’t want to deal with; some have great people working in them, doing good by kids here and there—but they are impossible to run well. And their presence just gives everybody an easy out. Close them.
Related, we have to get the police out of the schools. We need the police, and we need to work together to help make our communities safer—and we might need to call them if something really dangerous happens or is about to happen in a school—but we don’t need police in schools. We need a radically different approach to making schools safe. We have to want to create peaceful institutions based on nonviolence and mutual trust. And doing that is goddamn hard—much harder than installing metal detectors, hiring security guards, and striking deals with the police.
[Also,] we need teachers and [other school] staff who really believe that school can work for all kids. It doesn’t work to show up, pass out textbooks and worksheets, have a zero-tolerance policy, and just say if “those” kids just wanted to learn, we wouldn’t have problems. No, you won’t have problems when you really invest in “those” kids, get to know them, adjust your teaching strategies, find out what they are interested in, make learning relevant, give students a voice, offer them choices, give up some control in the classroom, and challenge [students] to help you make [your classroom] work and improve school culture.
[Finally] resources matter. Take the money that goes into running alternative schools and deploy it in the [other] schools that really need it. Hire and train staff who can help make school work for hard-to-reach [students], set up advisories and tutorial programs, host poetry and spoken-word contests, build digital music studios, start a robotics program, and ask students to help set up an alternative to metal detectors. Start a debate team, and sponsor a speech contest on reforming the juvenile-justice system. [Then] open all of these activities to the students you really don’t trust or really want in your school. And when a kid takes an interest in one of them, embrace it, run with it—and acknowledge and praise [her] for taking a step forward, for investing … Just decide that you’re going to love that kid—that problem kid, that kid who always messes things up. You, each adult in the building, just have to decide that [every child] is yours.
Anderson: One complication you cited in reforming educational opportunities for incarcerated youth is the patchwork of oversight agencies. In some cases, schools in youth facilities are under the responsibility of juvenile-justice bureaus; in others, the programs are operated by local school districts. From your observation, how do we confront this governance challenge—and where do privately run juvenile detention centers fit into the equation?
Domenici: This is a real mess, for sure. To start, schools in juvenile-justice facilities need to be held accountable, and the people in the schools and the institutions that run them need to be held accountable—by local school districts, state offices of education, the federal government, and by all of us. Schools need to agree to basic performance measures—and if they fail to meet the measures then something real has to happen. That could be a reconstitution, a reorganization, a change in provider—but it’s got to be something.
But at a macro level, we all need to start caring about these kids. I go on site visits and witness stuff that could never take place in the public schools my kids attend in Washington, D.C., without all hell breaking out—from parents, community activists, and students themselves. I just came back from a site visit where [students] sat in classrooms with no teachers for half of the morning—just sat there staring at each other in dingy rooms with the windows barred and painted over so you can’t see out. “Teaching” social studies consisted of handing out a [word-search worksheet], in English class students watched a video about the Illuminati-Michael Jackson conspiracy theory. Surreal. Tragic ... This is [the kids’] reality, day in and day out. Adults—the teachers—who are being paid to educate [children] are doing this; other adults—the principals, their directors—let them keep doing it; and the agencies responsible—the school provider, school districts who contract out to them, the state agencies in charge—permit them to keep doing it. There are no parents around because the kids are shipped off hundreds of miles from home [and] agencies entrusted and legally mandated to care for the students are derelict.
For-profit providers are also a real problem. Again, I was recently on a site visit to a facility run by a private, for-profit provider. The place was filthy—with dirt and grime caked on everywhere. We learned the provider doesn’t employ a custodial staff or use an outside cleaning company. Youth get pulled from school to clean the facility as a part of their unpaid “work detail.” This is slave labor: Kids cleaning a facility for a private provider who doesn’t want to pay to keep the facility clean. The visit was gut wrenching, grotesque. My colleague and I left reeling—and we still are. Somehow the provider thinks this is okay. That’s only possible if you truly think of these kids as other, less than human, not yours.
Anderson: Despite formidable obstacles, you insist that there’s room for hope. What is it that keeps you optimistic in an area of work that has so many tragic and unfortunate elements?
Domenici: I’m an idealist, and I believe in the inherent goodness of people. I know plenty of terrific people who, right now, are devoting themselves to kids who are locked up. I’m also a pragmatist. We have 50 percent fewer kids locked up today than when I first started working in this field. I think that number will continue to go down—and that just means fewer [young people] in crappy facilities attending non-schools. And there is some momentum around accountability [with] legislation that passed in Florida and Louisiana.
There are teachers in secure facilities in Wyoming teaching kids coding and programming—and challenging them to design prosthetic devices on 3D printers. [Students] are taking college courses in youth facilities all over Oregon. In Utah, they are sponsoring creative projects around art, writing, and self-expression—they’ve even built a website to showcase student work. In Los Angeles—and half way across the country in a rural facility in Indiana—teachers and other staff have helped kids write poetry and music and produce incredible podcasts.
Reaching out to students, finding their humanity, challenging them, supporting them, pushing them to excel. There’s excitement about what can happen, what can be done.