Special Education Advocacy for Incarcerated Youth

Emerging Leader Fellow: Ashley Sawyer, 2014-2016

The Problem:

Close to 70 percent of youth involved in the juvenile justice system have a special education need. However, incarcerated youth in Pennsylvania are routinely denied the educational services to which they are legally entitled. While federal legislation currently exists to address these issues (the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act or IDEA), many juvenile justice facilities lack awareness of the law and its implications.

The Approach:

Ashley spent the first year of her fellowship with the Education Law Center developing and providing training for staff from facilities across the state; educating families and communities; and meeting with public defenders and state education and human service agencies to advocate for policy improvements.

Through this work, Ashley determined that effectively meeting the special education needs of incarcerated juveniles would require: ensuring facilities are aware of their legal obligations to provide special education services to the youth in their care; informing juvenile defenders about their role in helping their clients get the education they need; putting mandatory standards in place for the monitoring and oversight of education offered in juvenile facilities; and further raising awareness of the powerful role families and communities can play in advocating for youth in placement facilities.

Next Steps:

Ashley is continuing her fellowship for an additional year (into 2016) to further advance these issues. Specifically, she is: collaborating with Philadelphia DHS Juvenile Justice Services to develop a set of education related requirements to be incorporated into contracts with juvenile justice facilities; creating a parent/caregiver guide that outlines what education-related questions should be raised during adjudication hearings and what legal protections are available for youth with special education needs in juvenile justice facilities; developing detailed policy recommendations for the State Board of Education regarding what amendments need to be made to the private academic school regulations that govern Pennsylvania’s 118 private delinquency facilities; and developing in-depth, evidence-informed recommendations for Juvenile Probation, the Juvenile Court Judges Commission (JCJC) and the courts regarding the most appropriate placement of children based on their educational needs.