The State Legislature will need to do at least two things if it hopes to correct these problems. First, it needs to require localities to provide disabled children with the school services they are entitled to under federal law, instead of just dumping them onto streets. Then lawmakers must strengthen the educational programs within the juvenile system itself by hiring better-trained employees and providing stronger central oversight.The point about holding public schools accountable as well as TYC is a good one. TYC will be rightfully blamed for longstanding failures in education once kids are incarcerated - particularly the fact that, as the Times said, "Children are routinely asked to essentially teach themselves through “self-directed reading” — even though a substantial percentage have limited reading skills." But those kids were already many grade levels behind their peers in school before they got to the Youth Commission. Too often, as the Times put it, school districts are "dumping" their problems rather than beefing up services for disabled or emotionally disturbed kids.
The Dallas News earlier this year reached the same conclusion, editorializing that Texas had "inadvertently constructed a pipeline to youth prison." They argued that:
So the mechanisms by which kids are functionally ousted from school at increasingly early ages, and for increasingly less serious offenses, had already been identified and been the subject of vocal criticism. The new Ombudsman's report, as the Times rightly points out, builds on that critique to add that disabled and emotionally disturbed kids predominate among those "dumped" by the schools into alternative disciplinary programs and ultimately into the juvenile justice system.
An increased investment in our schools, especially at the elementary level, can pay huge dividends further down the road because it's in those formative years when things start to go wrong, experts say. An upfront investment in prevention can ultimately reap huge savings – and salvage lives – down the line.
Instead, Texas favors a disciplinary-referral program that targets children – even in pre-kindergarten – to be removed from classrooms for misbehaving. A 2005 Texas A&M study found that the single most important predictor of future involvement with juvenile justice is a history of disciplinary referrals in school.
The Texas system puts certain kids – particularly blacks and Hispanics – on a fast track for disciplinary referrals. Since 2003, Texas school districts have isolated thousands of students in disciplinary referral, including 500 pre-K and kindergarteners, and 2,100 first-graders. Are we setting these kids up for shame, inferior education, failure and a possible life of crime?
Whether such systemic flaws violate individual kids' federally guaranteed right to education, I don't know, but the Times is right the Ombudsman's report raises the possibility that they could. Certainly TYC isn't meeting those minimum standards, but something tells me that, for the most part, the school district these kids came from weren't doing so, either.