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Troubled youth need more community help, says speaker

by Sherry Fisher - May 30, 2006

“Boot camps,” “scared straight” programs, and other tough love tactics don’t work for troubled youth, according to Peter Leone, director of the National Center for Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice.

“There’s no empirical evidence to support it,” he says.

“What these kids need are better community-based services and supports.”

Leone, a professor of special education at the University of Maryland, was the keynote speaker at a conference, “Leading Change: Rethinking Juvenile Justice,” held May 11 in the Rome Ballroom.

Solving problems with children who come into contact with the courts “is not something that any one agency can tackle on its own,” he said.

“The needs that children have often transcend organized services in the community. They certainly transcend how we organize knowledge and training in places like the University of Connecticut and the University of Maryland.”

He said many incarcerated young people are developmentally delayed. “On the average, the kids in juvenile correctional facilities are about four years or so behind their peers,” he said, noting that they often have learning disabilities.

During the 1990s, a random sample was taken of adolescents who were in juvenile correctional facilities. Eighty percent had been in special education programs in the public schools before to being locked up.

“These youngsters are disproportionately minority, poor, and school failure is common,” he said.

Participants in the conference included school administrators, teachers, staff, and students, families, community and residential providers, court personnel, and others.

It was sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families Bureau of Juvenile Services, the Judicial Branch Court Support Service Division, the UConn School of Family Studies and the UConn School of Family Studies Alumni Society.

Leone said that in today’s public schools there’s an “incredible focus on accountability, a big focus on zero tolerance, and concern about violence and destruction and standards.

Kids who aren’t great performers, academically or socially, are at great risk.

“If schools are pressured to meet achievement standards,” he added, “they are going to get kids like that out, using whatever pretext.”

Behavior that in the past was handled informally by the assistant principal or by a call to parents, is now routinely referred to the police department.

“The consequences of minor things are horrendous,” he said.

But despite what one might read in the newspapers, he said, school crime is at an all-time low.

“[Schools have] never been safer,” he said. “Where is the safest place for kids to be? School. The least safe place is at home.”

Leone said it is “impossible to talk about children and their educational needs without talking about trends that have occurred in the public schools that I think have propelled more kids out of the school system and into the communities and have placed them at greater risk.”

Inadequately developed academic skills and poor literacy skills put kids at great risk for problems, he said.

As adults, they’re more likely to be unemployed or incarcerated.

“Illiteracy, like school failure and suspension, is highly associated with poverty, homelessness, health problems, and other negative outcomes as adults,” Leone said.

“There is strong evidence that the more education you have, the more well developed your skills, the less likely you are to re-offend, be rearrested, and be recommitted.”

Leone said that reading can be taught effectively in juvenile corrections facilities. Intensive literacy practices, associated with activities on the living units, show “dramatic gains” in reading.

“Being bad is more socially acceptable than being good,” he said.

“Often adolescents act out because they don’t have the skill set. They don’t want to let us know that they can’t read. People who are not facile with the language will do whatever they need to do not to disclose or reveal the fact that they can’t read. And their behavior will be interpreted in ways that suggest non-compliance.”

Juvenile correctional facilities can’t address certain kinds of emotional behavior problems, he said. “They aren’t the places for kids like that.

When youngsters leave correctional facilities, the advice they receive is: ‘We know you’re going to do the right thing.’

But that’s not enough, he said. “As long as they leave without adequate services and support, there will be problems.”

“We all have a role to play and to the extent that there is a problem, it is all of our problem,” he said.

“To the extent that there are children who are illiterate, who are locked up and disconnected, and are committing delinquent acts – those are all of our children. We need to examine the impediments to successful reintegration. They are out there.”

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