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Senate Panel Considers Raising Standards for Juvenile Justice Education

October 27, 2011 - 6:00pm

Some of the same accountability measures that were introduced in public K-12 schools over the last decade could be coming to the state's juvenile justice facilities.

Under a proposed law (SPB 7016) that will be considered Wednesday in a Senate education committee, school districts and the private companies involved in educating youth in the state's detention centers, residential treatment facilities and prevention programs would be subjected to a three-tier performance rating, from "failing" to "high performance."

If a district or company involved in educating youth at a Department of Juvenile Justice facility receives two failing performance ratings in a three-year period, the department could sanction them or even prevent them educating DJJ youth.

The ratings are based on learning gains and industry certifications earned, as well as how well the student does after leaving a DJJ program -- such as whether a student obtains a high school diploma, earns college credits or lands a job -- which will be factored in to the performance rating.

But the bill notes that the agency cannot hold a district or company accountable for what happens to youths after they are no longer supervised by the department -- such as when they leave the facility or are done with a post-lock-up probation period.

The school district the detention center is located in is responsible for educating those students. The district can provide the educational services themselves or contract with a private company.

This proposal is a major priority of Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, who has made juvenile justice reforms a big focus of his legislative career. He passed two previous bills, one in 2009 and the other earlier this year, aimed at loosening the strict zero-tolerance policies that cause students to end up in juvenile justice facilities.

"Our job is to make young people successful, not to see if we can just have them occupying a seat and generating revenue," Wise said. He said by offering incentives to better educate and train troubled youth, it will help improve their opportunities once they leave a detention center or residential treatment facility.

Wise said too many young people leave detention centers and are unable to find work or finish school.

"That leaves only two things to do -- steal or deal," Wise said. "We can't train them to go to prison."

These latest reforms are not aimed at prevention but at improving the opportunities available to at-risk youth after they leave detention centers or residential treatment facilities.

Although public K-12 schools have long been scrutinized based on student performance, with schools and districts labeled from A to F based on student test score results, juvenile justice facilities have escaped this scrutiny.

For instance, teachers involved in DJJ programs are not subjected to the new teacher merit pay law that ties public school teacher salaries to test scores.

Currently, there are 4,182 youths locked up in detention or residential facilities in Florida, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice. A 2010 Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability report said more than 12,000 youths were served through DJJ education programs during the 2008-2009 school year.

That same report says most youths in residential programs stay between six and 12 months, while the average length of stay for a nonresidential program is three to 12 months. Most of the students are in grades 9 and 10.

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