WASHINGTON — Today, youth and civil rights advocates renewed their request for the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to investigate Louisiana’s repeated failure to provide general and special education for children in secure care facilities plagued by systemic inequities.
In a letter to OCR, advocates describe how the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) – the state agency responsible for youth in secure care facilities – routinely deprives detained youth of their right to receive educational services, especially as it increasingly relies on adult facilities to confine children. The letter also points to the disparate impact on Black children who represent more than 80% of the youth in OJJ custody even though Black people comprise only 31% of the state’s population.
The letter sent today was signed by legal and policy advocates for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic & Center for Social Justice of Loyola University of New Orleans College of Law, the ACLU of Louisiana, and the ACLU National Prison Project.
The groups first alerted OCR to systemic issues in the delivery of education for detained youth in Louisiana in a March 2023 letter, in response to testimonials from youth incarcerated at Angola prison and across the OJJ secure care system who have not received adequate rehabilitative treatment, including legally mandated education services. Last month, a U.S. district court judge ordered the removal of the children after coming to the same conclusion. On September 15, 2023, the children held at Angola prison were relocated to Jackson Parish Jail, a new facility designed to hold 400 adults and approximately 50 children. Though the facility is different, the problem remains.
“OJJ is failing children by denying them access to an education and other rehabilitative services,” said SPLC Senior Staff Attorney Susan Meyers. “This is irresponsible and illegal. We are asking the U.S. Department of Education to intervene to protect their education rights.”
Under federal and state law, children are entitled to receive instructional time and earn credits toward a diploma. The Louisiana Department of Education was notified about OJJ’s failure to educate but the problem persists. Advocates say that without federal intervention the cycle of disinvestment, neglect, and abuse for children in OJJ custody is bound to continue, to the detriment of youth across the state.
“Youth do not belong in adult facilities, and they certainly do not deserve the violence, abuse, and trauma that the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) continues to inflict upon them. Young people need education services and mental health supports to learn from their mistakes and grow into contributing members of our community,” said Gina Womack, co-founder and executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. “Federal intervention is direly needed because our state leaders have proved to be either unable or unwilling to effectively or humanely care for youth in their custody.”
“All children are entitled to education, and there is no exception for children in OJJ’s custody,” said Nancy Rosenbloom, senior litigation advisor at the ACLU National Prison Project. “It is the opposite of rehabilitation to deny schooling to young people and cause them to fall behind.”