Juvenile justice systems in the South and across the nation are failing children - and taxpayers - by failing to provide a good education to detainees, according to a new study.
In a broad call to action with few specifics, the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation said every state should reorganize juvenile justice systems from top to bottom, with education becoming the primary focus.
"I would say it is as important as improving the 'Corridor of Shame' schools in South Carolina," said study author Steve Suitts, vice president of the nonprofit. "A case could be made that failures to educate these kids in the juvenile justice system are costing taxpayers more than the failures of public schools in general."
The majority of juveniles who have been in detention wind up making return trips to the criminal justice system, and others face poor prospects for a job unless they at least complete high school.
The study does not highlight any states that are doing a good job of educating juveniles, but notes that states handle the detention and education of juveniles in varying ways, making reform a state-specific challenge.
Juveniles might spend as little as a day or two in detention, while awaiting an initial hearing, or they could spend months waiting for adjudication.
In Charleston County, for example, juveniles are detained in a county-run facility while awaiting adjudication, and take classes taught by Charleston County School District teachers.
"We have six to eight teachers assigned, and a principal," said Maj. Eric Watson of the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, which runs the detention center. "They come to us to teach the kids."
Most counties, however, take juvenile detainees to the state Department of Juvenile Justice facility in Columbia. The department operates the largest pre-adjudication detention center, and facilities for evaluation and incarceration.
For those detainees there's the DJJ School District, serving roughly 900 students in grades 4-12. The DJJ also offers career and technical programs through an affiliation with Midlands Technical College.
South Carolina is one of four states where a juvenile justice department runs a school district for detainees, and the South Carolina DJJ's Birchwood School is where most juveniles in state custody take classes. The school's 2012 report card shows that Birchwood was rated "excellent" from 2008-2012, 97 percent of teachers were rated "highly qualified," and 87 percent of teachers had advanced degrees.
The Southern Education Foundation visited the state's juvenile facilities while preparing the organization's study, and positively noted the DJJ School District's arts integration program, trade school programs, and the practice of having a multidisciplinary treatment team at a long-term facility meet at the beginning of a student's custody.
However, the foundation said the treatment team meetings were not consistent, and despite efforts to provide a school-like environment by hanging up student art projects and such, "dated facilities and rigid behavior management often placed a greater emphasis on a jail-like environment."
Repeated attempts to reach a spokewoman and an administrator at the Department of Juvenile Justice, by phone and email, were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Tom Blomberg, executive director of the Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research at Florida State University, joined a conference call Wednesday to discuss the study's findings. Blomberg has studied juvenile justice programs in Florida for many years.
"Education works better, with this population, than anything I've seen," he said. "This is a social policy that we need to embrace, that will do wonders for this population and wonders for this country."
David Domenici, executive director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, in Washington, D.C., also joined the conference call. He said the study isn't a call for states to pour new money into juvenile detainee education.
"In most cases, this is not about increasing funding, but improving human capital, the educational framework, and the way teaching is provided," he said.
Blomberg, repeating a popular talking point about school funding and prisons, said investing more now in education can mean paying less in the future for jails.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552.