Educational Advocacy for Youth
With Disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that States provide a free and appropriate public education for all students with disabilities if the State receives Federal support for educating students with disabilities. IDEA gives enforcement authority not only to the Federal and State Departments of Education, but also to individuals.38 Therefore, if a parent, youth advocate, or department of education worker finds that a detained or confined youth is not receiving adequate educational services, IDEA can be used to secure appropriate education for this youth. Previous studies emanating from litigation and professional literature in this area document the inadequate educational services received by youth in custody.39 IDEA serves as an ideal tool to access educational services for youth with disabilities because it requires public schools and State-operated programs, such as juvenile correctional facilities, to provide each eligible child with adequate special education and related services.

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

Although nearly all States have compulsory education laws and provide educational services through local school districts, Congress recognized the special needs of students with disabilities when it passed IDEA in 1975. IDEA mandates that all eligible students receive a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive setting possible.40 Any State receiving Federal funds for educating students with disabilities must take affirmative steps to identify and evaluate all students who they suspect are eligible for special education services.41 The identification process used by the State or education program must be racially and culturally nondiscriminatory.42 Under IDEA, identification of any of the following disabilities entitles a student to free appropriate special education and related services: mental retardation, deafness, hearing impairment, speech or language impairment, visual impairment, serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, blindness, specific learning disability, autism, traumatic brain injury, or multiple disabilities.43

Once a youth has been identified as eligible for special education and related services, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) must be developed before services commence.44 To ensure that each child's special needs are addressed, the IEP must be produced at a meeting with the student's teacher, parent(s), and a representative of the educational program.45 The IEP must specifically identify the educational needs of the individual student and provide a plan for meeting those needs. IDEA regulations outline the specific areas to be addressed in the IEP and discuss the student's level of functioning, long- and short-term educational goals, and all related services that must be provided to help the child reach those goals.46 The services may include individual tutoring, counseling, and any other educational assistance needed by the student. If the education program that is established for the child does not provide all of the services outlined in the IEP, then it has violated IDEA and the rights of the child with the disability.47

In addition to securing adequate special education services, IDEA is a landmark statute because it gives parents of a child with disabilities, or a child suspected of having disabilities, the ability to monitor the assessment, identification, and education of the child through IDEA's grant of certain procedural and substantive rights. IDEA regulations require that parents be notified of and give permission for the initial evaluation of their child.48 Once their child has been identified as being eligible for special education services, IDEA also gives parents the opportunity to contribute to decisions concerning the development of the IEP. If the parents find that the evaluation of their child or the implementation of the child's educational program is unsatisfactory, they can use the complaint and hearing procedures provided by IDEA.49 Parents or advocates filing administrative complaints or invoking due process hearings trigger the primary mechanisms through which IDEA ensures delivery of mandated educational services.

The scope and specificity of IDEA represent unprecedented Federal involvement in State and local education by providing statutory educational guarantees to all children ages 5 to 21 with disabilities.50 Since the passage of IDEA, parents and advocates no longer have to rely on constitutional due process or equal protection claims in order to secure educational opportunities for their children. When schools fail to provide appropriate services to children with disabilities, including schools in juvenile detention and correctional facilities, IDEA enables parents to file complaints or invoke hearings in order to access appropriate educational services. IDEA gives parents and advocates both the mechanisms to appeal the educational decisions of school districts and the opportunity to seek redress in court.

Reauthorizations of IDEA have broadened the eligibility to children from 3 to 22 years of age in most States. In 1986, the passage of the Handicapped Children's Protection Act guaranteed reimbursement of attorneys' fees to parents who prevail in litigation brought under IDEA.51 Recent reauthorizations have placed increased emphasis on the transition of youth from special programs to the community. Transitional services may be especially important for youth in custody. Youth released from detention facilities need transitional services to reintegrate successfully into the community, and the special education system often has resources that the juvenile justice system does not.

Future reauthorizations of IDEA may seek to limit the scope of the educational services provided and the eligibility of youth for these services.52 Advocates should make certain that their congressional representatives are aware of the importance of IDEA and the consequences of denying disabled students an appropriate education. Accessing special educational services can provide many detained and incarcerated youth with programs that enhance their abilities to reintegrate into the community and to succeed in their education.

IDEA and Juvenile Justice

Although a few studies have attempted to determine the prevalence of disabilities among youth in correctional institutions, methodological problems and varying definitions of disabilities have made it difficult to come up with reliable figures. Completed studies have estimated that the percentage of detained and incarcerated youth with disabilities ranges from 42 percent of all juvenile offenders in Arizona to 60 percent of all juvenile offenders in Florida and Maine.53 In an attempt to assemble cogent data, Casey and Keilitz conducted a meta-analysis of all of the predominant studies of disabled juvenile offenders.54 They estimated that 35.6 percent of juvenile offenders have learning disabilities and an additional 12.6 percent have mental retardation. Casey and Keilitz also reported that they could not conduct a meta-analysis of youth in juvenile corrections with emotional disturbances due to insufficient quality and numbers of studies. A recent analysis of studies on the prevalence of mental disorders among youth in the juvenile justice system, however, estimates that approximately 22 percent of those incarcerated have significant mental health problems.55

Whether 30 percent, 60 percent, or a higher percentage is a reliable estimate for the prevalence of disabilities among youth in juvenile corrections is beyond the focus of the current discussion. What we do know is that the percentage of youth in juvenile correctional facilities who were previously identified and served in special education programs prior to their incarceration is at least three to five times the percentage of the public school population identified as disabled.56 With this proportion of detained and incarcerated youth entitled to special education, IDEA provides the vehicle to access these services.

Litigation Under IDEA

Prior to the passage of IDEA in 1975, many advocates initiated litigation to secure the right to education and related services for children with disabilities. In subsequent years, much of the litigation has sought to define and clarify the nature of that right.57 While most cases involving claims under IDEA have been heard by U.S. district courts and U.S. circuit courts of appeal, a few cases have reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Among other things, the Supreme Court has addressed issues such as the meaning of "appropriate education,"58 whether specific services are medical or educational and are covered under IDEA,59 the payment of attorneys' fees and costs when parents prevail in disputes with local school districts concerning services,60 whether children with communicable diseases can be classified as disabled for educational purposes,61 and disciplinary exclusion of students with emotional or behavioral disorders.62

Although the provisions of IDEA have applied to all States receiving Federal financial assistance under part B of this legislation, many States have been slow to provide special education services to incarcerated youth with disabilities.63 During the past few years, advocates have challenged the quality and availability of education for youth with disabilities in juvenile correctional facilities. Although many of these cases are currently being litigated, some suits have been settled.

Advocates have used IDEA to litigate on behalf of incarcerated youth with disabilities in a number of States. Since 1975, more than 20 class action lawsuits involving special education services in juvenile corrections have been filed. With few exceptions, the cases that were initiated have never gone to trial, and very few published judicial opinions exist. Most often these suits have been settled through consent decrees or settlement agreements that responded to nearly all of the claims made by plaintiffs, typically after years of procedural delays.

Table of Cases

Table 1 displays cases involving special education claims in juvenile corrections litigation. All of the cases are class action lawsuits brought on behalf of residents in juvenile facilities who were entitled to special education services. The fact that 15 of the 25 cases listed were filed in the 1990's shows the heightened awareness of special education issues and the strength of IDEA. A quick review of the table reveals that the cases emanated from many different regions of the United States, clearly illustrating that the inadequacy of special education services in juvenile correctional facilities is a nationwide concern. Most of the complaints involved special education issues in isolation. However, a few have involved constitutional issues as well. The length of time between initial complaint and settlement ranged from about 2 to 7 years for those suits that have been closed.

A review of three cases illustrates some of the problems associated with educational services in juvenile corrections.

Andre H. v. Sobol. Andre H. v. Sobol, initiated in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York in May 1984, was brought on behalf of juveniles eligible for special education services at New York City's Spofford Juvenile Detention Center. Plaintiffs' attorneys claimed that Spofford, a detention and holding facility, conducted no screening activities to identify youth who may have disabling conditions, convened no multidisciplinary team meetings to determine eligibility and plan appropriate educational services, and made no attempt to obtain records from schools previously attended by the youth. As a result of these and other practices, no special education services were provided to detained youth at Spofford.

In January 1991, 7 years after the initiation of the suit, a stipulation and order of settlement was signed by attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defendants, the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice, and the New York City Board of Education. The settlement required Spofford to develop a multidisciplinary team at the detention center and fully implement the provisions of IDEA. The agreement also required that the parties jointly appoint a monitor who would visit the facility semiannually for 3 years and determine the extent of compliance with the agreement. At the conclusion of the monitoring period, Spofford was found in compliance with the settlement agreement.

Johnson v. Upchurch. In contrast to Andre H. v. Sobol, which focused only on special education, Johnson v. Upchurch addressed a broad range of issues in juvenile corrections. In 1986, Matthew Johnson, a youth confined to Catalina Mountain Juvenile Institution near Tucson, filed a complaint on his own behalf concerning his treatment at the juvenile correctional facility. A subsequent class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona claimed that the Arizona Department of Corrections failed to provide special education services to youth in custody. Additionally, plaintiffs maintained that the conditions of confinement were unsanitary, hazardous, and punitive.

In spring 1988, during a time when there were no special education services at the facility, the plaintiffs requested an injunction requiring the Arizona Department of Corrections to fill a vacant teaching position and provide appropriate services. The court subsequently appointed a Special Master to assist in the resolution of education complaints and to evaluate special education services. After protracted negotiations, Johnson v. Upchurch was settled in May 1993 through a consent decree that required broad reforms in juvenile corrections throughout the State of Arizona. The consent decree also specified that a committee of consultants should oversee and monitor the implementation of the agreement.64 At the time of this writing, the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections is in compliance with all educational components and with most other provisions of the consent decree except population limitations.65

Smith v. Wheaton. Smith v. Wheaton, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in 1987, has not been settled yet. Like Andre H. v. Sobol, the complaint in Smith v. Wheaton focused only on the educational needs of incarcerated youth with disabilities. Unlike the plaintiffs in Andre H. v. Sobol, those in Smith v. Wheaton were in a long-term facility rather than in temporary detention.

The plaintiffs in Smith v. Wheaton complained that the Long Lane School, a juvenile correctional facility operated by the Connecticut Department of Children and Youth Services, failed to meet minimum timelines for evaluation of youth and for provision of special education services to those deemed eligible. Plaintiffs also alleged that parents were not involved in educational decisionmaking for their children with disabling conditions, that no related services such as counseling or occupational therapy were available, that Long Lane School failed to develop IEP's as required by IDEA, and that adequate transition plans were not developed for youth leaving the facility. Although plaintiffs and defendants in Smith v. Wheaton have engaged in settlement discussions during the past 5 years, as of this writing the case is unresolved.

These three cases are somewhat representative of the litigation under IDEA and the problems associated with educational services in juvenile corrections in many jurisdictions. In each case, plaintiffs alleged violation of IDEA. In the two cases that were settled, the defendants responded by providing a level of educational service that met the requirements of the law and was comparable to services available in the public schools. Beyond the educational costs accrued from providing inadequate services or no services for a period of time, the defendants were required to pay the costs of the litigation. In Arizona, the State paid more than $1.8 million in plaintiffs' attorneys' fees and more than $180,000 to two named plaintiffs; the cost of private attorneys defending the State added to the total cost of this litigation.


Litigation raises a number of issues for administrators, policymakers, and advocates. First, litigation in several jurisdictions has been a tool, albeit an expensive one, used to reform juvenile correctional education programs.66 In some instances, litigation has led to the establishment of special education services that did not previously exist in spite of the plain, inclusive language of Federal statutes and corresponding State regulations. In Arizona, litigation enabled advocates to work with legislative leaders to create the Department of Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation, which separates juvenile corrections from the adult correctional system and creates a school board for the new department. Prior to the current reforms, the educational programs in Arizona's juvenile confinement facilities did not meet Arizona State guidelines for minimum amounts of instruction each week. Among other things, the Johnson v. Upchurch consent decree required the State to pay teachers in juvenile correctional facilities salaries comparable to those paid to their public school counterparts and to obtain North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools accreditation for correctional facility schools in the State.

A second and related litigation issue involves the role of State departments of education in providing oversight and consultation to juvenile correctional programs. While each department of education guarantees that all schools and State-operated programs will provide special education and related services to eligible youth as a condition for the receipt of Federal funds, in reality, the U.S. Department of Education has never withheld any money from States that failed to provide appropriate special education services in juvenile corrections. Until monitors at the U.S. Department of Education and their counterparts in State departments of education enforce their mandates to ensure that all youth with disabilities receive appropriate educational services, advocates and parents appear to have no other recourse than litigation. Presumably, incarcerated youth with disabilities and their parents have the same due process protections in education as their public school counterparts. Any number of familial factors, the distance of youth from their home communities and schools, and the lack of administrative mechanisms in some juvenile justice systems make it unlikely that parents and their children will have access to those legal protections in the absence of oversight by State departments of education.

A third issue raised by litigation involves the competing purposes of juvenile corrections. While rehabilitation is often cited as one of the purposes of juvenile corrections, incapacitation and punishment are frequently higher priorities. In many facilities and State agencies, the organization and administrative structure do not support rehabilitation as an outcome for juvenile clients. Limited fiscal resources often make education compete with security, maintenance of the physical plant, and new construction needs. In Arizona, for instance, prior to the reforms associated with Johnson v. Upchurch, other than for teachers' salaries, there was no annual budget for education. Educational program managers had to go "hat in hand" to the superintendent of their facility to obtain books, pencils, paper, and other consumable materials associated with operating a school.

Alternatives to Litigation

Although positive results can occur from litigation, this does not mean that litigation should be the primary use of IDEA. Rather, IDEA establishes a framework within which parents and advocates can present their special education concerns to correctional facilities in the interest of avoiding litigation. The mandates of IDEA require educational facilities to meet the special education needs of all students. Providing special education services to youth with disabilities in juvenile corrections facilities, however, is inextricably intertwined with the general quality of educational services for youth in custody. Educational services in juvenile corrections, whether operated by the juvenile corrections agency, the State department of education, or a local school district, are typically a low priority for many correctional administrators. All educational programs in juvenile facilities must begin to meet the minimum standards associated with public schools in order to provide educational services for youth with disabilities.

Under current arrangements, the infrastructures needed to support quality juvenile correctional education programs are missing in many jurisdictions. Correctional education programs, with some exceptions, do not have the autonomy, administrative structure, or fiscal resources necessary to provide quality education for incarcerated youth, much less to meet the needs of disabled youth.

The Nation's youth do not have a statutory or constitutional right to good or even adequate education. Some improvements arguably necessary under IDEA, however, can be used to improve the general level of schooling for all incarcerated youth. Strengthening educational programs and ensuring that eligible youth receive special education services require that correctional education programs develop stronger ties to public school programs, gain fiscal and administrative autonomy from the correctional agency, meet standards associated with public school programs, and implement the requirements of IDEA in their facilities.

Stronger ties between public school programs and correctional programs could ameliorate the delay that occurs when correctional education programs try to obtain prior school records for their students. Correctional education programs often wait months to receive grades, test scores, IEP's, and other information that would help educators in juvenile corrections evaluate and place students and provide appropriate services. The information in school records routinely passed between public school districts is often delayed when the request for records originates in a correctional facility. Compounding matters is the fact that many incarcerated youth have had mobile school careers and in some instances have been truant or expelled from school for a period of time prior to their incarceration. Even in those States where special school districts for correctional education have been established, such as Connecticut and South Carolina, obtaining prior school records is still a problem.

Creating stronger links between correctional programs and the public school system can be accomplished by having local school districts operate educational programs for juvenile corrections. In Florida, a local school district operates the educational program in the State's two secure confinement facilities for juveniles. At the very least, advocates could help convene meetings between juvenile corrections and State and local school representatives to agree on a method for efficient, mutual exchange of confidential school records of juveniles. Opening the channels of communication between public schools and correctional education programs is an important first step in providing an appropriate education in juvenile facilities.

Strengthening correctional education programs also requires establishing administrative and fiscal autonomy that enables educational rather than institutional concerns to steer decisions about the use of resources, the assignment of staff, and the curriculum. Focusing on the educational needs of youth in facilities will not occur unless the administration of the correctional education program is autonomous. While educational administrators in juvenile correctional settings need to work cooperatively with institutional and agency administrators and staff, decisions about educational programs must be driven by professional standards, State guidelines for public school programs, and youth needs. In the absence of administrative and fiscal autonomy, educational administrators cannot develop long-range plans, infuse the curriculum with new instructional technology, or respond to the demands of the changing job market that youth will face.

Fiscal autonomy can be achieved through establishing a cost per pupil that is set aside in the annual budget based on the average number of students residing or detained in the facility. Education should have an independent category in the correctional budget. Another means of ensuring fiscal autonomy is by contracting with local school districts for services and charging the correctional agency a minimum cost per pupil based on the average quarterly count of students in the correctional education program. Alternatively, juvenile corrections could assess average costs per pupil for each student and bill local school districts for the time that youth are in custody or confinement. While this remedy would certainly be unpopular with local education agencies, this arrangement, in addition to promoting the exchange of student information, would create incentives for local school districts to proactively serve those youth who are at risk for dropping out, failing school, and/or being suspended and expelled.

Meeting professional education standards associated with public school programs can also enhance the development of more effective correctional education programs and appropriate educational services to youth with disabilities. The Correctional Education Association has developed and disseminated standards for correctional education programs in juvenile and adult facilities, but these standards are broad and have not been widely adopted.67 Several correctional programs have sought accreditation from professional associations of schools and colleges -- a promising avenue for improving services.

Los Angeles County Court and Community Schools, serving more than 5,000 juveniles adjudicated in community-based and correctional facilities, achieved accreditation during the 1980's. The accreditation process has resulted in the creation of basic minimum standards for correctional school programs including adequate space, an articulated curriculum, professional development, and adequate compensation for staff. Accreditation can help avoid costly litigation such as that which occurred in Arizona, which ultimately required accreditation of the educational program in each of the three secure facilities operated by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

Improving correctional education programs by meeting professional standards, creating stronger ties to public schools, and gaining administrative and fiscal autonomy can lead the way to implementing the requirements of IDEA. Administrators, educators, and advocates would be prompted to be more attuned to the needs of the high percentage of disabled students in juvenile facilities. Once the local school provides the student's record, youth with previously diagnosed disabilities can receive appropriate services. Those students who have not been identified as disabled, but appear to have difficulties, can be evaluated for undiagnosed disabilities. Advocates should encourage correctional schools to use IDEA for accessing the resources to offer services to juveniles with disabilities. The Federal funding available under IDEA provides a major incentive for facilities to identify and maintain services for disabled youth in detention and correctional facilities.


Youth with disabilities have specific rights to educational services. IDEA mandates that the special education needs of all youth be met, including youth in custody. In light of the overrepresentation of youth with disabilities in juvenile corrections, recent class action litigation with educational claims for juveniles with disabilities offers hope for improving special education services. The implications of litigation and alternative ways to improve educational programs in facilities for juveniles also support the notion that appropriate special education services can be provided to youth in custody.

The record suggests that advocates for incarcerated youth can be successful in using IDEA to obtain appropriate educational services. Class action lawsuits are one means of obtaining services and improving the conditions of confinement for youth in juvenile corrections.

Parents, guardians, advocates, and others concerned about the educational welfare of incarcerated youth can also press correctional institutions for appropriate services for youth on an individual basis. This process can begin with a careful examination of a youth's prior school history. A record of school failure, unexcused absences, chronic disciplinary problems, and grade retention may be associated with a disabling condition that has not been detected. Vision or auditory problems, learning disabilities, and emotional disorders can contribute to poor school performance and school failure. Family mobility, other family concerns, and economic instability can also result in serious learning problems being overlooked by the schools. A parent, guardian, or advocate who suspects that a disability may be contributing to the poor educational performance of a child or adolescent should make a referral for an evaluation.

The Juvenile Law Clinic at the District of Columbia Law School runs an education advocacy project that attempts to assist juveniles in delinquency proceedings by training law students and local attorneys to use special education law proactively and to suggest special education alternatives to confinement.68

Educational programs in juvenile corrections facilities should promote the academic and social competence of their students and ensure that they reenter their communities better prepared to assume roles as students, workers, and citizens. IDEA is one vehicle that ensures that educational programs for detained and committed youth meet the needs of incarcerated juveniles.

Checklist for Using IDEA
If you have knowledge of a youth in custody who has disabilities and is not receiving appropriate educational services, you can:
Check Verify if the youth has been identified as having a disability either before or after incarceration.
Check Find out about the status of the youth's IEP if the youth has been identified as having a disability.
Check Monitor signs of a disability by a youth who has not been identified as disabled and share your findings with an authority who has the ability to do an initial screening and obtain a more thorough evaluation.
Check Discuss the need for appropriate services at the facility with:
Check Teachers and tutors at the facility.
Check A facility administrator.
Check A special education attorney in the area or a law school clinical program.
Check A professor of education.
Check Parents.
Check Obtain the Correctional Education Association standards on correctional education programs.
Check Review the facility's educational standards.
CheckEstablish a committee of educators, advocates, and administrators to:
Check Ensure that IEP's are conducted in a timely fashion by qualified personnel.
Check Revise the educational standards of the facility.
Check Simplify the eligibility determination for special education services.
Check Ensure that the facility has qualified teachers.
Check Involve local advocacy groups that support children and persons with disabilities.
Check Contact an attorney who can assist you in bringing litigation against the facility if education services do not improve.

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