College Behind Bars

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The Obama Administration has ruled that young people incarcerated in any of the 2,500 local, county, state and federal juveniles-only group homes, mental health treatment and locked-down detention facilities are now eligible to apply for federal dollars set aside to help low-income students pay for college.

Officials called the December 8 ruling, which also applies to juveniles who were tried as adults, a “clarification” of 20-year-old legislation that prevented inmates from receiving Pell grants, named after Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell, which were established in 1965 to help facilitate higher education for needy individuals.

In 1994, Congress barred federal and state prison inmates from getting such federal education aid — resulting in the shutdown of college-level programs in prison institutions across the country, and triggering a controversial debate about education for prisoners which continues to this day. Ever since that 1994 ban, some advocates have argued it unfairly penalized many young people whose offenses were relatively minor.

The federal ruling, contained in the Guiding Principles for Providing High-Quality Education in Juvenile Justice Secure Care Settings, was due in no small part to the lobbying efforts of juvenile justice advocates such as David Domenici, a corporate lawyer-turned-educator who helped found the Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools for court-involved and other at-risk teens in Washington, D.C., in 1997.

Domenici worked as a principal of one of the first schools in the network, established at Oak Hill, a juvenile correctional facility in Washington. A D.C. resident, Domenici also is founder and executive director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, a national think tank launched in 2011 in Washington.

In a conversation with Katti Gray, contributing editor of The Crime Report, he discussed the new ruling and what needs to happen next.

The Crime Report: What can access to a Pell Grant achieve for at least some incarcerated juveniles?

David Domenici: There are a few thousand kids in facilities around the county who currently have their high school diploma or [Graduate Equivalency Diploma] and don’t have access to high-quality post-secondary education options. But if a kid is confined for six months, nine months, [or] 12 months, we want them … to, ideally, have a tutor or mentor helping them with online community college courses. [With access] to Pell Grants no longer an impediment, it puts pressure on youth correctional agencies and the school districts that run [teaching programs] inside of correctional facilities to rethink what they do.

Now that the financial aid issue has been resolved, let’s solve the technology [and other] challenges. Online colleges courses are one possibility for these kids. I’m not saying online learning is the only solution, or the perfect solution. What we do know is that kids at high risk [for crime] and who have lower skill sets do better with courses online, with tutoring and with a solid group of peers. The state of Oregon is one of the [few] places that have these online courses. I’ve been in a room and seen 18 kids all log in and take an online course in Oregon.

TCR: What other options exist besides online courses?

DD: It may be that a professor at a local college will come in and teach or tutor. Right now, where that kind of thing is happening, the students’ tuition is paid because someone has set up an endowment, or the juvenile justice agency has some money that it set aside to hire professors. All of that is wonderful … But if your facility is 20 miles from a local community college, then what?

In places where there were no funds [to attract professors to such facilities] we now can actually pay for a professor to get there and teach. We can say, “You don’t have to do it gratis.”

TCR: How many juveniles will be affected by this clarification of Pell Grant eligibility?

DD: An estimated 60,000-plus juveniles are in facilities. Only 9 percent of them have their diploma or GED. About 4,000 would be eligible for Pell Grants.

This seems like a drop in the bucket. But what would this mean to the 4,000? If you are one of those kids—and just a few [juvenile offenders] ever go on to get a college degree—this matters. That is the other way to look at it. They’ve made some mistakes. They’ve been incarcerated. This is our U.S. government saying to [some of those] kids, “You know what? We appreciate your [desire for an education]. You’re trying to beat the odds. Instead of you sitting around the next six months with nothing [constructive] to do, we’re going to get you that financial aid … ”

If you are one of those few thousand kids, this is a very big deal.

TCR: Describe your efforts to get this clarified ruling? What were the challenges?

DD: Almost every state juvenile agency has a person in charge of education. In Fall 2011, we convened a small group of those people who brought up the challenges of getting kids good post-secondary options. We approached [the Department of Education] on this because we knew it wasn’t likely there would be state-by-state legislative change on this issue. The DOE did a lot of serious research and came to the conclusion that this clarification had to be as broad as possible. Even kids charged as adults but serving time in juvenile facilities qualify for Pell Grants. That was a broader interpretation than even we were fighting for. It signals that the DOE and [Department of Justice] really care what happens regarding education for kids who are locked up.

TCR: As a former teacher for this population, what do you believe you know that the broader public may not know?

DD: The truth is that life inside a juvenile justice facility is pretty tough for kids and for the adults who work there. Getting high-quality instruction is a long, hard battle. In some cases, it’s because the state [juvenile offender] agencies were set up as a branch of the adult correctional system or of a child welfare system. In no cases, was it ‘Wow, let’s have a great school inside of this correctional facility.’

Schooling was the afterthought in many states. In about half the states, [correctional] agencies run the facility and school districts run the schools inside of them. In many cases, it was not the highest priority of the school districts to make sure those [correctional facility] schools have the best teachers. Some of that may not have been intentional; it may have been [benign] neglect.

TCR: What makes you see possibilities for these kids academically?

DD: The good news is if you get it going right, it’s amazing for kids and for adults who are involved with this. You have these kids captive. You shouldn’t have a large attendance problem. You often have small classes.

What you must have are attentive teachers and everybody on board with the idea that these kids all matter. And all that is pretty hard. We’re trying to help people see that this can be a really great place to make a difference in the lives of young people.

The reality is that many of them struggled academically early on, in kindergarten and first grade, and never got the support they needed. And many were diagnosed with special needs. Early on, school was not a place where they were successful.

There are also young people who do well in school up to, say, the 10th grade, but who come from tough neighborhoods. The wheels fell off and they got more and more engaged in criminal activity. They’re 17, with one year of high school credits, and might be distrustful of adults. But once you can raise an [academic] issue that they can sink their teeth into, you’re, like, ‘Wow, he has the capacity and toolkit to start functioning well as a high school student and could function well beyond high school.’

Both groups of kids need to go to a really good school that is engaging, where they are around adults with high aspirations for them and who can help them tackle their challenges. What both groups will need is a lot of triage.

Katti Gray is a contributing editor of The Crime Report, and a freelance journalist who covers criminal justice, health, higher education and other topics. . A 2014-15 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, she is investigating Veterans Treatment Courts aimed at keeping mentally ill, law-breaking veterans out of prison. She welcomes comments from readers.

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