Education denied to students with disabilities in adult jails

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RALEIGH—Prompted by complaints filed by our Advocates for Children’s Services project, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has launched formal investigations into the routine failure of Guilford County Schools and Vance County Schools to provide educational services to their students incarcerated in adult jails. For each of the three students covered by our complaints, the school systems failed to provide them with any educational services whatsoever.

We learned of the investigations in a letter from the department dated June 5, 2020. We filed our complaints with the department on May 29, 2020.

We filed our Guilford County complaint on behalf of two high school students and our Vance County complaint on behalf of one high school student who experienced the same deprivation over two separate periods of incarceration.

The complaints allege that the school districts failed to fulfill their legal obligations by:

  • Failing to provide the students with any education during their incarceration. Two of the students received packets of work without assistance or instructions. One received no work, instruction or assistance of any kind.
  • Failing to follow required procedures regarding discipline of students with disabilities while the students attended their regular community schools.
  • Failing to provide the students with appropriate educational services while they attended their regular community schools.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires the school system to educate all students with disabilities—including incarcerated students—in an appropriate manner in accordance with their Individualized Education Plans. Yet, Advocates for Children’s Services believes that youth in adult facilities across North Carolina—not just in these two counties—typically receive no education.

The students’ cases paint a compelling picture of how the school-to-prison pipeline operates when students’ special education needs are consistently ignored, funneling students into the criminal justice system. For that reason, the complaint describes violations occurring during the students’ incarceration as well as those leading up to it.

These violations have led to—and will continue to lead to—dire educational consequences for students in adult jails, if not fixed on the systemic level. Tessa Hale, an attorney with Advocates for Children’s Services, notes, “The link between education and reduced recidivism rates is well established in research. When we fail to educate these youth, we return them to their communities without the knowledge that will allow them to function in society.”

The parent of one of the students named in the complaint said, “I want my child to be a productive citizen. Anyone wants that for their child. Nobody wants to see their child in and out of jail because they don’t have the skills to do better. Without education, my child will be in a worse position when he gets out. How is that rehabilitation?”

The parent continued: “When a child goes to jail, they are taken away from everyone in their community who was educating them. The child is locked away from parents, grandparents, and other adults that care about them and could try to help guide them. They spend their time with the other kids in jail, and those kids aren’t getting any education either. We can’t also take away the chance for them to learn from teachers who are trained to educate them.”

One of the students named in the complaint stated, “I was 16 when I was first incarcerated. The second time was when I was 17 and a junior in high school, and I was taken out of high school and incarcerated in an adult facility for four months. I didn’t receive any support or education while I was in jail and after I was released, I had a lot of difficulty re-enrolling in high school and lost over a year of my life and education.”

In our complaints, Advocates for Children’s Services asks that our clients and all similarly situated students receive tutoring and other educational services to address the past and ongoing harm done to them. We also request that the Department of Public Instruction institute oversight measures to ensure future compliance with the law for all similarly situated students.

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Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity. Legal Aid’s Advocates for Children’s Services project seeks to end North Carolina’s school-to-prison pipeline by defending the rights of low-income children in public schools.

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Sean Driscoll, Director of Public Relations, 919-856-2132,