Reform project seeks to keep children in school, out of the juvenile justice system
LEXINGTON, Ky. — She spent four years in the ninth grade. Then, in 2008, "J.J." turned 18 and the school turned her away.
Believing that J.J.'s classroom problems were rooted in a learning disability, her grandmother had asked school officials to intervene while there was still time.
But J.J. never received the special education services that might have helped her make it to graduation day. So she watched the door of opportunity slam shut. Now, however, J.J. will be getting help with her education because of a class action complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and its partner in Kentucky, the Children's Law Center.
Tragically, J.J.'s story is being repeated across America as the educational needs of thousands of students with learning disabilities are being neglected and subjected to harsh discipline that drives them from school.
"As a society we're not giving our most vulnerable children the support they need to succeed, and we're paying dearly for that neglect," said SPLC President Richard Cohen. "Too often, we forget the truth of what author James Baldwin once said: 'These are all our children. We will profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.'"
Students with disabilities are most at risk, especially children of color. Their problems at school can and frequently do lead them into the juvenile justice system, especially in schools that have adopted zero-tolerance policies that rely on the police and courts to handle discipline issues.
On any day, there are an estimated 100,000 children and teens behind bars in the U.S., many housed in abusive conditions that harden young hearts and do little, if anything, to put them on a better path. Some studies suggest that as many as 70 percent of children in detention have significant mental health or learning disabilities — the very same children that should be helped in school.
This national crisis led the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2007 to establish its School-to-Prison Reform Project, a national campaign to stop the flow of children from schools into the justice system.
One major goal of the project is to prod school systems — through litigation when necessary — to comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law requires schools to identify and evaluate students like J.J. and provide the counseling, psychiatric care, special education and other services they need.
Another goal is to bring some common sense to school discipline policies so that children aren't hustled off to detention and court for misbehaving.
When it came to helping J.J. and her classmates, the SPLC — through a partnership with the Children's Law Center in Lexington — brought a complaint against Kentucky's Fayette County school district. The complaint described a school system where officials were quick to suspend students with learning disabilities or to relegate them to alternative schools.
Since filing the complaint with the Kentucky Board of Education last February, the Fayette County school system — the state's second largest — has been ordered by the state board to make reforms that will help identify students like J.J. and provide the services they need.
Fayette County school officials also must review the records of students who have had excessive suspensions or expulsions and those who have shown a pattern of repeated academic failure or significant behavior problems.
These reforms offer hope for students like J.H. who have attended alternative schools for years with little chance of returning to regular school. At the time the complaint was filed, neither J.H. nor J.J. had been considered for an evaluation to determine if their school problems were related to a disability.
Another student cited in the complaint, Darryl Warner II, was held back four times, and the district was slow in evaluating him for special education services, the state Department of Education found. Warner said he now wants to get his diploma or GED and attend a vocational school where he can learn auto bodywork.
"I want to go back to school," he said.
But for many students, the path back to the classroom isn't an easy one. It often requires an advocate who can navigate a school district's bureaucracy.
"It is important for these children to have someone arguing for them," said Warner's grandmother, Yvonne Denning.
The SPLC and the Children's Law Center are working to make sure Warner's wish of getting his education comes true.
The impact of the campaign is being seen elsewhere in Kentucky, where the SPLC settled a complaint against the Bullitt County Public School System. The December 2008 settlement will bring changes throughout the school system.
In addition, the SPLC has settled similar complaints against large school districts in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida, enforcing federal law and spurring changes in discipline procedures that will help keep children in school and out of detention.
But helping these children has required advocacy groups like the Children's Law Center and the SPLC fighting for them.
"Children who don't have strong advocates don't have a chance," said Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, litigation director for the Children's Law Center. "That's why the Southern Poverty Law Center's campaign to end the school-to-prison pipeline is vitally important. It gives a voice to those who would otherwise be silenced and shut out of an education."