In my work as a Check & Connect trainer and technical assistance provider, I often consult on challenging cases, some of which involve mentees involved in the juvenile justice system. Mentors who work with adjudicated youth struggle to identify strategies to engage them in school and connect them with needed resources, knowing that this population is at very high risk for dropping out of school.
Tavis Smiley Reports: Education Under Arrest
Since I am always on the lookout for resources on this topic, the latest episode of Tavis Smiley Reports, Education Under Arrest, caught my eye. This specific episode – episode 6, his second on educational issues – aired on PBS on March 26, 2013 and is currently available online (as of this writing). It shows the juvenile justice system from the perspectives of juvenile offenders, judges, police, probation officers, correctional facility staff, youth advocates, and school administrators. It examines the connections between the current state of the juvenile justice system and the dropout rate among teens and describes current juvenile justice system and reentry reform efforts. (See Episode Overview blog post on Tavis Smiley Reports.)
As I listened to the professional viewpoints shared in the program, I noticed some common themes on needed reforms in the juvenile justice system, including student engagement, accountability, support, reintegration planning, and hope. Here are just a few of the statements professionals made, organized by these five themes I teased out:
- “Our job is to keep them in school, keep them engaged, going to class, getting their credits and graduating.” (Student engagement)
- “We want to be a part of giving youth consequences for behavior, not criminalizing them.” (Accountability)
- “This is how we are going to handle misbehavior and we are going to have high expectations. We are going to stop at nothing to help you be successful.” (Support)
- “We want to make sure that we have a transition plan and from the day they get there [school]: they’re going to be enrolled, they’re going to be accepted, and they’re going to be successful.” (Reintegration planning)
- “They are certainly better than the worst things they’re accused of doing.” (Hope)
- “We see the potential of every single kid that we have in here.” (Hope)
- “Overdose them with hope.” (Hope)
When interviewing a probation officer who persisted with a teen and his family, Tavis summarized, “You had plans for Chris when he didn’t have plans for himself.” He then asked, “How important is that, that somebody in their universe has to see something in them that’s greater than what they see in themselves?” My response is that it is of the utmost importance that each of these youth has a caring adult who sees their potential.
Linkages with Check & Connect
As we know from our work with Check & Connect, seeing the potential in children is essential. Check & Connect mentors must believe that all students, especially those living in at-risk circumstances, have abilities and strengths and can learn (see Components and Elements of Check & Connect).
A new project at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration (ICI) is striving to facilitate the successful reentry of youth with disabilities from juvenile justice facilities to secondary school, postsecondary education, and employment opportunities in their Twin Cities communities, using Check & Connect as one of its approaches. While watching the Tavis Smiley report, I immediately saw a connection between the themes in the reform efforts described in it and key elements of ICI’s project, Making a Map: Finding My Way Back (MAP).
The goals of the MAP Project are quite similar to the themes I discovered in the Tavis Smiley report:
- Develop reintegration planning facilitated by an existing reintegration framework designed to support interagency collaboration (Reintegration planning)
- Implement personalized approaches and strategies to support youths’ 1) engagement with school and learning using Check & Connect and 2) development of specific goals using ICI’s Expanding the Circle: Respecting the Past, Preparing for the Future curriculum (Student engagement, Support, and Hope)
- Create a sustainable model through extensive interagency collaboration that continues the strategies and interventions used during the project’s implementation once the project ends (All themes)
In the MAP Project, the Check & Connect mentors are called MAP guides. They are assigned to students with disabilities in the juvenile justice system in Ramsey County, MN. They make a commitment to work with individual students for at least two years, including remaining with students through the reintegration process when they return to their home schools. Like regular Check & Connect mentors, they connect with students, identify their strengths and interests, and facilitate goal setting. They also facilitate family engagement with school.
Helping Students be Engaged and Accountable with Extensive Planning and Support
As a Check & Connect trainer on the MAP Project for the next four years, I have much hope for the youth with disabilities who find themselves in juvenile justice facilities. Through this project, MAP guides will provide these youth much-needed support, while the implementation of a reintegration framework will support the interagency collaboration essential to their successful reintegration into school and life.
 The MAP project is one of three model juvenile justice demonstration projects funded in January 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). These three projects are all part of Cohort 7 Model Demonstration Projects: Reentry of Students with Disabilities from Juvenile Justice Facilities into Education, Employment, and Community Programs.
About the Author: Eileen Klemm, M.A. is the project coordinator for Check & Connect presenting training nationally, facilitating the Check & Connect Coordinators’ Community of Practice, and providing leadership in the overall training and support of the Check & Connect model.
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