A report by legal advocates in California finds “chronic absenteeism” is apparent — even when teens are locked up.
Students who attend school inside juvenile detention centers have long struggled to get a proper education and graduate on time. But there’s a lesser-known challenge as well: Incarcerated students who don’t show up for class.
Roughly 17% of youth serving time in county facilities were marked as “chronically absent” in the latest available school data, according to a recently released report by the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. In school districts located in Ventura, Alameda and Santa Cruz counties, half or more of all young people are regularly missing instruction time.
Students are listed as chronically absent if they miss more than 10% or more of all school days — absences that can lead to escalating struggles to stay on track academically.
“If we continue to ignore the critical needs of youth to ensure that they have a quality education, we are doing them and our state a great disservice,” said Christopher Middleton, a Youth Law Center fellow and one of the authors of the “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” report.
The legal advocacy group gathered data about students detained in juvenile halls through Public Records Act requests and state education databases. But because of the limited amount of data available, a more complete picture of how these students are faring remains “blurry,” the report authors state. That creates a problem for youth advocates and reformers seeking to improve the lives of young people ensnared in the justice system at an early stage of their lives.
“If we don’t have the data, it’s very hard to understand whether or not we’re having the positive impact that we want,” Middleton said.
The Youth Law Center report comes at a time when the state’s juvenile justice system is grappling with sweeping new challenges. In June, California shuttered its youth prison system, sending scores of youthful offenders to county-run programs and facilities.
As a result, local probation departments are now charged with educating teenagers and young adults who are living for years in detention facilities like juvenile halls that are designed for short-term stays. The local agencies have had to ensure programs connect young adults to more expansive educational opportunities at community colleges, as well as provide career counseling and job training.
State government has supported those efforts. In June, California Gov. Gavin Newsom approved $80 million in ongoing funding to county offices of education, to be used to improve education for youth at juvenile halls and alternative schools. That money is intended for rapid assessment of a young person’s educational needs as they enter and leave juvenile detention centers, as well as improved tracking of their academic progress. Newsom also expanded on an earlier $15 million investment that will require probation departments to offer in-person or online college courses to incarcerated youth.
The funding has allowed programs, including Project Change at the College of San Mateo and Project Rebound at San Francisco State University, to offer higher education to incarcerated teenagers. One 18-year-old student in detention, who was interviewed inside the San Mateo County Youth Services Center for an Imprint article earlier this year, said he had leapt into college coursework over the past year. The aspiring personal trainer said kinesiology courses opened up a new perspective on his future.
“Growing up, I wasn’t really into school,” he told a reporter as he sat at a table in the facility’s library. “I’d just go to socialize, mess around and talk to the kids. Now, I understand that education is way more important. Now I take it seriously.”
Identifying a chronic issue
Youth Law Center researchers found a surprising educational concern among this population. Despite their confinement and close supervision, many young people held in juvenile halls are somehow missing large chunks of school, according to data provided by local school districts that serve students behind bars.
The authors say that “chronic absenteeism” in lockups should be considered differently than in most public schools.
“In this context, any chronic absenteeism in a court school is concerning, because it indicates that students who literally have nowhere else to go are somehow still not attending school,” the report reads.
In the 2021-2022 school year, the Ventura County Office of Education reported the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in schools inside juvenile halls. Roughly 65% of all students in so-called court schools in that county were listed as “frequently absent.” That number does not include youth who stay less than 31 days at a juvenile hall— thus the percentage could be far higher.
The reasons for missed instruction time remain unclear. The report’s authors note that students in juvenile detention centers can miss class or show up late to school for a variety of reasons. Chronic absenteeism can result from “unlawful facility practices,” limited oversight of correctional workers, youth refusing to attend class, and a lack of coordination between probation and school staff, the law center report found.
Recent reports show documented probation policies and facility staffing playing a key role. In Los Angeles County, a 2021 lawsuit filed by the California Department of Justice alleged that local probation officers prohibited entire living units from attending school if one youth misbehaved.
The county is currently under court supervision to address those issues and a wide range of other violations, including the improper use of force by staff and unsanitary conditions. In an April motion, California Attorney General Rob Bonta said the county’s probation department was failing to provide “timely transport of youth from their units in the juvenile halls to school daily.”
“In this context, any chronic absenteeism in a court school is concerning, because it indicates that students who literally have nowhere else to go are somehow still not attending school.”— Youth Law Center report, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.”
In other instances this year, youth missed classes, recreation time and other vital programming because the county probation department failed to properly staff its juvenile halls. In May, the Board of State and Community Corrections voted to shut down two juvenile halls, due in part to the staffing issues.
Examples can be found beyond Los Angeles County as well. A 2018 report cited in the Youth Law Center report shows that probation officers in Kern County kept some incarcerated youth from attending school if they were deemed to present a “high-security” risk.
And in Kings County, a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights California alleged that probation officers improperly interfered at the county’s J.C. Montgomery School. Court filings describe how students were subject to inappropriate discipline in classrooms. Instead of instructors or teaching aides, probation officers would oversee students’ school work. Those officers, the lawsuit alleges, would remove students from class for minor infractions, such as if they believed young people weren’t paying sufficient attention. Other times, probation staff pepper-sprayed students in class.
As a result of California’s compulsory education law, parents can be held accountable for their children’s absences, and there is no exception to that responsibility for parents who have children who are in custody, authors of the report said. That liability, however, does not extend to probation agencies who oversee children in detention.
“No such consequences exist for the failure of a probation department or detention staff to ensure the attendance of detained youth who are placed under their care and supervision,” the report notes.
Youth advocates want the state to figure out why youth in detention are missing so much class time, and how to better track it when it happens. The law center is calling on state education officials to monitor suspensions, expulsions and access to post-secondary education for all youth housed in juvenile facilities.
“If we aren’t maximizing the quality of education in juvenile halls, then we are not maximizing the potential for them to be rehabilitated and become active and productive members of communities all around California,” Middleton said.
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