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The way children and youth are treated in juvenile detention facilities remains one of the nation’s great scandals. Some of the worst examples involve physical abuse and inhumane living conditions. In Florida, for example, a fourteen-year-old boy was recently admitted into a state-run boot camp. Just hours after his arrival, during a forced run, he fell down complaining of shortness of breath. In response, more than seven guards descended upon him and were captured on video choking, kneeing, and punching him as he lay helpless on the ground. The boy was eventually strapped to a gurney and taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His crime: stealing his grandmother’s car. In Texas, in the past few years, state employees sexually molested at least thirteen youths in state custody. Prison and state officials were aware of the cases but kept the reports secret. In Louisiana, guards entertained themselves by creating a game they called “Friday Night Fights,” in which groups of youths fought each other while guards watched. Conditions in Maryland facilities were so bad that reformer Vincent Schiraldi concluded, “[i]f you were sort of a mad scientist who was sent to Maryland to deliberately make kids into criminals, you could hardly do any better than what’s going on in Maryland’s juvenile facilities . . . . You’d have to work hard to cripple kids worse than they’re being crippled now.” The horrific violence is shocking. The incidents also put us on notice that the problems in the juvenile justice system run deep, affecting some of the most important functions that these facilities are intended to perform. If a system allows such shocking abuses to occur, what can we expect of its schools? The answer is: not much. And while the deficiencies in these areas make fewer headlines, they affect every single child in the system. A good school should be the centerpiece of any juvenile detention facility. All of the children in such a facility are of school age, and school is where they spend (or should spend) most of their day. Moreover, whether they learn, accrue credits, and advance grades can have a huge impact on their life prospects. Despite their importance to students’ lives, schools in detention settings typically do none of the things good educational practice requires: Academic expectations are low; the curricula are neither relevant nor rigorous; there is little focus on literacy; social and emotional wellness get short shrift; special education services are wanting; career preparation is not emphasized; and schools adopt a deficit approach that views young people, their families, and their communities solely as problems to be fixed.
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