Young criminal offenders who are sentenced to jail often serve their time and win release, only to find that they can’t return to their schools–a situation that reduces the opportunity for them to straighten out their lives, advocates say.
“It makes the choice of dropping out that much easier for them,” said Melanie Starks, a lawyer with Connecticut Legal Services who represents students in the New London area who face difficulty accessing educational services. “I have seen firsthand the obstacles these students face. They’re just so discouraged.”
To help address the problem, the legislature this year is considering a bill aimed at easing juveniles’ re-entry to school. Supporters say it’s much-needed.
A national study by the U.S. Department of Justice reports that two of every three juvenile offenders drop out of school after they are released, so state advocates say it is essential to make sure re-entry into school is as seamless as possible.
“We should not be putting up barriers,” said Starks.
On any given day, there are about 200 juveniles behind bars in Connecticut; over the course of a year, about 1,500 are incarcerated at some point.
And many of them are already behind in school, said William Carbone, executive director of the Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch. He said only 5 percent of juveniles perform at their grade level; typically they are two to three grades behind in school.
“It’s already difficult enough for them to catch up… They’ve already been punished, let them go to school,” said Christine Perra Rapillo, the director of Juvenile Delinquency Defense with the Office of the Chief Public Defender. “This is a real problem. They want to go back to school but can’t.”
The bill currently before the legislature would require districts to re-enroll youthful offenders as soon as they are relased from jail. If the juvenile faces expulsion, the time they were locked up must count towards the expulsion period.
Advocates say many students each year attempt to return to school just to find out their expulsion is just beginning. Often students are forced to wait a whole school year after they are released to get back into the classroom.
“That sounds like to me almost like double punishment… It turns a year-long expulsion into much longer,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford and co-chairman of the Education Committee. This problem has been brought up in the past, he said, and “I’d like to think this would fix the problems once and for all.”
During a hearing before the Education Committee, Acting Education Commissioner George Coleman and the state Office of Policy and Management supported the idea of getting juveniles back into school, but said school officials need the flexibility to maintain a safe environment for all students.
“The issue here is one of safety,” OPM testified. This bill would require students to be immediately enrolled “even if it is not the most appropriate or safe option.”
Acting Education Commissioner George Coleman said during an interview that providing a “secure and safe” environment is essential but “those kids have a right to be in school.” He said as long as schools are still given some discretion of when students can enter school when safety is an issue, then he is supportive of the proposal that implements a timeline for re-entry.
But Fleischmann said there is a 180-day limit on how long a student can be expelled from school for a reason and if students are forced to be out of school for longer “it’s not right. Children have a constitutional right to education. It’s a question of basic fairness.”
The proposal was approved unanimously by members of the Education and Judiciary committees, and awaits action in the State House of Representatives.