Education Advocacy as a Best Practice for Justice-Involved Youth

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October is National Youth Justice Action Month, a great time to raise awareness about the challenges justice-involved youth face and the importance of educational advocacy. This is also a great time to raise awareness about how Disability Rights Texas (DRTx) protects the rights of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system and how you can get involved, too.

What is the JPEA Program?

In November 2015, the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (HCJPD) established a partnership with DRTx to help improve educational outcomes for probation-involved youth. The following year, the Juvenile Probation Educational Advocacy (JPEA) program officially launched. The JPEA program is dedicated to changing the life course of youth in the juvenile justice system through educational advocacy. Specifically, the program strives to:

  • improve educational services for children and youth who are “neglected,” “delinquent,” or “at-risk,”
  • help youth successfully transition from institutionalization to further schooling or employment, and
  • ensure continued education by building support systems to keep youth from dropping out of school.

Why We Exist

As many as 65-85% of students in the juvenile justice system have a disability and likely require services to be successful in school, but many of them are not receiving those services.

Youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system face many hurdles in accessing education. Schools often refer students to the system without identifying their need for special education services or providing the right academic and behavior supports.

Nationally, 60-70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health condition and almost 30% have a serious disorder that requires immediate, significant treatment. These youth are entitled to important protections and behavioral supports at school, but many have never been properly identified as needing these services. Even the students who are identified as needing services aren’t necessarily receiving them. This means that students are going without the supports and services that allow them to make academic and behavioral progress – the same supports and services that should be provided to them, for free, under federal law.

As a result, students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be expelled than their peers who do not have disabilities. These students are frequently referred to juvenile court for incidents that occurred at school or forced out of their classrooms due to disability-related behaviors. Families are often unaware of their child’s rights and unsure of how to collaborate with schools or advocate for their child to ensure appropriate educational services. For these reasons, a partnership with DRTx, the protection and advocacy organization for people with disabilities in Texas, was a natural fit for HCJPD.

What We Are Doing

DRTx’s JPEA Team has worked to protect and advocate for the rights of justice-involved youth in many ways, including:

  • Providing direct advocacy and technical assistance services to justice-involved youth and their families
  • Working with multiple school districts to make policy changes that provide youth with appropriate educational services and minimize discriminatory referrals to the justice system
  • Offering dozens of Back-to-School workshops for youth and families in English and Spanish
  • Providing numerous trainings to juvenile justice professionals to better equip them to assist families with their youths’ educational needs
  • Joining with major community stakeholders to address barriers to school reentry and transition challenges for youth released from juvenile justice facilities and disciplinary programs
  • Providing a number of self-advocacy resources so families of justice-involved youth understand their rights and how to take action

Real Results

Over the past six-and-a-half years, DRTx has provided services to over 2,000 probation-involved youth in Harris County, keeping them on the path to staying in school and away from the justice system. Those advocacy efforts have resulted in meaningful successes, including:

  • more evaluations for special education services,
  • improved disability services at school,
  • smoother reentry into community schools,
  • reduced length of and prevention of placement in disciplinary programs,
  • identification of appropriate education programs for youth who are struggling academically,
  • enhanced protections for youth who have experienced bullying, and
  • obtainment of homeless services and appropriate truancy prevention measures.

The JPEA program’s work speaks for itself. In 2021 and 2022, on average 94% of youth served had not been re-referred for a new offense. And, these drastically reduced recidivism rates are just one of many ways to demonstrate the program’s impact.

Education Advocacy as a Cost-Saving Measure

Another way the program has demonstrated success is through cost reduction. DRTx’s services have helped youth successfully complete their conditions of probation (keeping them in their communities and out of justice facilities) and has even resulted in early termination of probation for some youth. In addition, DRTx’s advocacy has kept youth in community placements and reduced further involvement with juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. In this way, DRTx’s advocacy services have proven to be an effective cost-saving measure for HCJPD.

Education Advocacy as a Best Practice

DRTx’s educational advocacy for justice-involved youth is supported by both research and concrete results. In addition to successfully advocating for increased use of community placements and evidence-based behavior supports for our youth, the JPEA Team has secured over 1,000 hours of compensatory education services to make up for educational services students should have received but didn’t.

Just as importantly, DRTx has tackled systemic challenges by serving as a liaison between HCJPD and local school districts, helping bridge the gap between the two systems. We both raised awareness with school districts about some of the most common barriers to success probation-involved youth encounter in schools and discussed ways districts can improve programming for these students. Through this approach, the JPEA Team has seen systemic changes in school districts’ approach to education of our youth.

DRTx is excited about the positive benefits the program has yielded and encourages other probation departments and legal service organizations to consider forming this kind of partnership as a best practice for serving juvenile-justice involved youth.

Interested in Learning More?

We look forward to continuing our advocacy for youth in Harris County and are working to set up partnerships with other Texas counties to provide similar services. If your county is interested in starting this type of program, please see our JPEA program overview and contact Sarah Beebe, Supervising Attorney and Program Director, at (832) 681-8211 or sbeebe@disabilityrightstx.org.