Special Education in Wisconsin’s Juvenile Detention System

Special Education in Wisconsin’s Juvenile Detention System

Zenz, Tamara

Abstract

This study looks at incarcerated youth in the public juvenile detention facilities of Wisconsin. State percentages of youth in Wisconsin public schools with Emotional, Learning, Cognitive, and/or Low Incidence Disabilities are compared to percentages reported from the state and county operated juvenile detention facilities. The study investigates if the apparent national trend of overrepresentation is true in Wisconsin. The data collected show the percentage of students with Special Education labels in thirteen detention facilities is significantly larger than the percentage of disabled students in the Wisconsin public school system. Therefore, a pressing goal needs to be identifying causes of delinquency among the Special Education population and putting programs in place to prevent the crimes in the first place.

Introduction

Thousands of youth are in custody in public and private juvenile correctional facilities all over the United States. According to The National Center of Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice (2002) approximately ten percent of students in public school systems nationwide are identified as disabled and in need of Special Education services. However, an estimated thirty to fifty percent of youth in juvenile corrections are identified as having disabilities. This percentage is an overrepresentation of Special Education students.

This study looks at incarcerated youth in the public juvenile detention facilities of Wisconsin. State percentages of youth in Wisconsin public schools with Emotional, Learning, Cognitive, and/or Low Incidence Disabilities will be compared to percentages reported from the state and county operated juvenile detention facilities. The study will determine if the apparent national trend of overrepresentation is true in Wisconsin.

Background

In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed. This established citizenship of all people born or naturalized in the United States. It also guaranteed those citizens that they could not be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process. This Amendment was originally written with the newly freed slaves in mind, but it is now the foundation of many arguments supporting the rights of students with disabilities. One property secured by this amendment is that of an education. More than one hundred years later, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973) and PL94-142 (1975) further assured individuals with disabilities of their right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Soon after the enactment of these laws, studies began regarding Special Education services being provided to students in all sorts of settings. It did not take long before researchers focused on the corrections system.

D.J. Morgan conducted one of the earliest studies. In 1979, Morgan surveyed 204 state correctional administrators to determine the prevalence and types of disabilities found amongst the juveniles incarcerated there. He found that of the 26,740 juveniles incarcerated, 42.4% were identified as handicapped for educational purposes. (Morgan, 1979, as cited by Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1985) In 1984, a group of researchers surveyed state special education and correctional education agencies to determine the number of handicapped offenders in juvenile and adult corrections. Their data yielded different results. The number of juveniles incarcerated had risen 20% from 1979 and the prevalence of handicapped offenders fell to 28%. (Rutherford, Nelson, and Wolford, 1985) There are several factors that could account for the differences including the methods of data collection and the truthfulness of those surveyed.

Beyond establishing prevalence of disability, the study of Rutherford and his associates investigated key components of effective correctional Special Education programs. “Special Education in the Most Restrictive Environment: Correctional/Special Education” was one of the first of many investigations into the phenomena of disabled students in the corrections system and how those students could best be served. In this article, Rutherford, Nelson, and Wolford (1985) identified six components necessary for implementing effective Special Education programs in juvenile corrections facilities: functional assessment, functional curriculum, vocational training, transitional programs, systems for providing community services, and teacher training.

Peter Leone has written several articles investigating the overrepresentation of Special Education students. He determined the most common disabling conditions among incarcerated youth to be mental retardation, learning disabilities, and behavior disorders. He further explained that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between these conditions and illegal behavior, but instead some of the disadvantages and characteristics associated with the disabilities increase students’ likelihood of incarceration. (Leone, 1991) Leone draws a connection between students’ poorly developed social and communication skills and their chance of being committed to correctional facilities. He gives additional information on the types of correctional programs providing special educational services and gives recommendations to improve those programs. He sights standardized assessments, direct instruction, and transition services as necessary components to those programs.

In 1993, Marilyn Rousseau and Roy Davenport looked not only at the components of successful Special Education programs, but also at the issues related to why Special Education students become incarcerated. They cite data from a 1987 study by Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford that showed evidence that learning disabilities lead to school failure, which in turn, often leads to delinquency and incarceration. Students who drop out of school often lack skills necessary for full-time employment and instead turn to crime as a means of supporting themselves financially.

There is a disproportionate amount of Special Education students in juvenile corrections facilities, but the data on prevalence varies from study to study, ranging from 23% to 75%. (Bullock 1994) Factors contributing to the imprecision include differences in state laws and disability definitions. That number increases when juveniles with substance abuse or mental health disorders are included. Although mental health professionals believe the numbers of students fitting into this category are high, few empirical data exist to support this. Teplin (2001) points out that data suggests more than 670,000 youth in the juvenile system each year would probably meet diagnostic criteria for one or more alcohol, drug, and mental disorders.

This study differs from others previously conducted in that it focuses specifically on public juvenile detention facilities in Wisconsin. This narrower field of subjects should yield more accurate data on prevalence of the specific Special Education labels mentioned earlier. Once educators in these facilities have a clear picture of the population they are serving, they can then implement plans to better serve their students.

The formal hypotheses of this study are as follows: Null hypothesis- When compared to the percentage of Special Education students in Wisconsin’s public schools, students with Special Education labels are not over represented in the Wisconsin juvenile detention system. Alternative Hypothesis-When compared to the percentage of Special Education students in Wisconsin’s public schools, students with Special Education labels are over represented in the Wisconsin Juvenile detention system.

Research Design and Instrument

Surveys were sent to 18 Juvenile Detention superintendents throughout the state of Wisconsin. (See Appendix A) Twelve of those facilities reported data regarding student numbers and percentages of student with Special Education labels, in addition to information on the number of certified Special Education teachers employed at their facilities. This researcher at the La Crosse County Juvenile Detention Facility also collected primary data. The results are presented in Table 1. The location of each of the facilities is listed in the far left column. The next two columns show the number of students housed there each year and the percentage of students within the facility with Special Education labels. The final two columns in Table 1 show data from corresponding school districts in the areas of the detention centers. This information was collected from reports each of the school districts submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in their end of the year “Prevalence Reports.”

Data Analysis

The data collected shows a significant discrepancy between the percentage of students with Special Education labels in detention facilities and the percentage of disabled students in the Wisconsin public school system. Data collected from 13 of Wisconsin’s juvenile detention facilities reveals much higher percentages within the corrections system. As shown in Table 1, the mean percentage of students with a Special Education label in those facilities is 60.46%, with numbers ranging from 85% in the largest urban area (Milwaukee) to 40% in two smaller facilities. In contrast, the mean for the 13 public school systems selected is 10.80%. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 11.77% of students in the Wisconsin public school system have a Special Education label. When calculated, the t-score for the 13 facilities (with twelve degrees of freedom) is 13.812 and the significance, using a 2-tailed test (the p-value) is .000. This data is suggests this population is indeed over represented in the juvenile detention system.

Discussion

One might believe Special Education students in the juvenile detention system are those determined to have “Emotional Disabilities.” However, all of the detention facilities included in this study report having students with all types of Special Education labels from hearing impaired, to learning disabled, to cognitively disabled. These disabilities do not cause delinquent behavior, yet students labeled as having these disabilities are grossly over represented in Wisconsin’s (and the nation’s) juvenile corrections system. This information is compelling enough to justify more research in this area.

There must be a focus on the causes of delinquency and ways to prevent the cycle of Special Education students being caught up in the correctional system. McKinney asserts, “To prevent and reduce juvenile delinquency, it is necessary to address not only the offenses that bring youth to the attention of the juvenile justice system, but also the underlying problems these youth face, including mental health problems”. (2001)

There are many factors that could account for over representation. First, many youths involved in the corrections system are also part of the foster care system. This is a very transient group of children. Many of them are not in one school district long enough to properly have their needs assessed. Educators may just be seeing the need for a referral when the student receives a new placement and transfers schools. Some students move around so often, school records cannot keep up with them. These juveniles “slip through” the system and their needs go unidentified. Second, many youths in the corrections system do not attend their public schools regularly. Because of their truancy, they too, often go unidentified in the system.

Third, there are juveniles identified as “home-schooled” in the detention facilities as well. Some of these students show obvious lack of skills and delays in functioning, but they carry no official label and, therefore, are not counted in the Special Education data.

Fourth, evidence exists that students with Special Education labels experience more negative outcomes at both juvenile justice hearings and trials. Moreover, once they are committed, those same students receive more disciplinary actions and spend more time in disciplinary confinement than their nondisabled peers. (Leone 1994)

Finally, this study did not include the students with diagnosed mental disorders (unless they also carry an ED label) or students with drug and alcohol dependency issues. Preliminary data from a Cook County, Illinois study shows that two-thirds of the youth detained there have one or more alcohol, drug, or mental disorders. (Teplin 2001)

Conclusion

In looking at thirteen detention facilities in Wisconsin, this study found there is an overrepresentation of Special Education students among those youth. Therefore, a pressing goal needs to be identifying causes of delinquency among the Special Education population and putting programs in place to prevent the crimes in the first place.

Endnotes

Definitions according to Wisconsin Public Law:

Adjudicated- Judicial determination that a youth has committed a crime; a conviction

Committed- a court decision for placement of an adjudicated youth in a juvenile justice program or adult corrections system

Corrections- a prison facility

Delinquency- acts or conduct in violation of criminal law (same as crime for adults)

Detention- in State or local custody, while awaiting an arraignment, adjudication, or judicial order

Detention Facility or Center- a temporary holding facility for juvenile offenders (comparable to jail in the adult system)

Definitions according to the Wisconsin department of Public Instruction:

Cognitively Disabled- significantly subaverage intellectual functioning that exists concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and that adversely affects educational performance

Emotional Behavioral Disability- Social, emotional, or behavioral functioning which departs from generally accepted, age appropriate, ethnic, or cultural norms, and that adversely affects a child’s progress in one or more of six areas: academic progress, social relationships, personal adjustment, classroom adjustment, self-care, and vocational skills

Learning Disabilities- a severe delay in classroom achievement and a significant discrepancy between ability and achievement and an Information Processing deficit linked to the achievement and the discrepancy

References

Berndt, Sandra (2001). Cognitive Disability Evaluation and Decision Making. Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Boreson, Lynn (2001). Educational Evaluation of Emotional Behavioral Disability. Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Bullock, Lyndal (1994). “Correctional Special Education: Disability Prevalence Estimates and Teacher Preparation Programs.” Education & Treatment of Children 17(3), 347-355.

Doren, Bonnie & Michael Bullis (1996). “Predicting the Arrest Status of Adolescents with Disabilities in Transition.” Journal of Special Education 29(4), 363-381.

Freiberg, Christine (2001). Speech and Language Impairments Assessment and Decision Making. Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction,.

Leone, Peter, et al (1991). Special Education in Juvenile Corrections. The Council for Exceptional Children.

McKinney, Kay (Aug. 2001). OJJDP Mental Health Initiatives. The Office on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice. Juvenile Correctional Education Programs. Online Posting. http://www.edjj.org/education.html, 2002.

Rutherford, R.B., Nelson, C. M, and B. Wolford (1985). Special Education in the Most Restrictive Environment: Correctional/Special Education. Journal of Special Education 19(1), 59-71.

Rousseau, Marilyn K., and Roy Davenport (1993). Special Education in Urban and Correctional Education in the Year 2000: A Response to Ludlow and Lombardi. Education and Treatment of Children 16(1), 90-96.

Teplin, Linda (2001). Assessing Alcohol Drug, and Mental Disorders in Juvenile Detainees. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency.

Volpiansky, Paula (2001). Specific Learning Disability Assessment and Decision Making.? Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Youth With Disabilities in Instructional Settings. Juvenile Justice Bulletin July 2000.

Biographical Sketches

Tamara Zenz holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English/Secondary Education and a Master’s Degree in Special Education/Emotional Disabilities from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She has worked with “at-risk” and Special Education students for the past 10 years. The last 5 have been spent teaching for the School District of La Crosse as a juvenile detention teacher. She enjoys photography, writing, and spending time with her husband and four children.

George Langelett holds a Bachelor’s degree in marketing from Northwestern College(MN) and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He taught for three years in a split economics/education appointment at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Dr. Langelett currently is an assistant professor of economics at South Dakota State University. His primary areas of research are economic growth and the economics of education.

Copyright Correctional Education Association Mar 2004

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