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Would More Support Keep Special Education Students Out Of The Juvenile Justice System?

On a tour of the Juvenile Services Center in Cheyenne, Sgt. Jay Stewart explains that juvenile offenders stay here for an average of 49 days. But whether they're here for a week or a year, kids are required to go to school. 

"Education for us is huge," said Stewart. "If they are not getting their education, they continue down that same path." The path Stewart is referring to leads to prison. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, adults without high school diplomas are more likely to be incarcerated.

To help kids stick with their studies while they're locked up, the detention center has a Laramie County School District Number One teacher on-site full-time. Nate Munter has been in the role for the last six years. "We've had good success," said Munter. "It's a smaller classroom, so it's more individualized."

Munter has help from a classroom assistant, and he said the deputies on duty will sit down and work with students, too. Munter said the kids really benefit from that level of support. And many of them come with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). "Just a guess, it's probably 50 percent," said Munter.

An IEP is a federally required plan that schools and families follow to ensure students with mental, physical, behavioral and cognitive disabilities can access education. Around 14 percent of K-12 students in Wyoming have an IEP, according to data from the Wyoming Department of Education. But as Munter noted, around half of his students have one.

Sgt. Stewart of the Juvenile Services Center has a theory about what's happening. "Some of that is some of those kids don't want to go to school. They end up being truant, and then they're doing other things when they are not at school, and they end up coming here."

But a school district official is less willing to speculate. "There's just so many factors that go into the numbers that you're talking about -the fifty percent-it's very difficult to make a correlation to why or what impacts that," said Eric Jackson, who is part of Laramie One's administrative team.

Without more data, he said they can't say whether special education students are somehow more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system than their non-special-ed peers.

Until now, the numbers were merely anecdotal because statewide data is not easily available. The number of special education students involved in the juvenile justice system is not something the Wyoming Department of Education actively tracks, according to the WDE's Communications Director Michelle Panos.

Wyoming Public Radio reached out to districts directly for numbers from the 2018-19 school year. Based on a response from just over half of Wyoming's school districts, about 40 percent of incarcerated students had an IEP. Ten of the responding districts had no incarcerated students all. Nine had only one incarcerated student. In all, but one case those students had IEPs.

Juvenile offenders can also end up at the Wyoming Boys School and Girls School, where the percentage of special education students has been on the rise over the last five years. In 2018, the number of students with IEPs at the Boys School had climbed to 46 percent. At the Girls School, the disparity is less, but the percentage has reached roughly 26 percent.

The Park County School District Number Six Special Education Director Peg Monteith said this begs some important questions. "The first one that comes to my mind is: Are we adequately meeting the needs of these students?"

Monteith said this population faces challenges. "They're at risk because they have a disability, to begin with, so their educational program and progress may be a struggle, and that gets the ball rolling with at-risk behaviors," she says. "It's like a snowball effect, I guess."

Without adequate support, a special education student can feel less engaged and not want to attend school, Monteith said. She's seen students numb feelings of failure and inadequacy with alcohol or drugs. Unfortunately, students' coping mechanisms can get them into trouble.

"It makes us look at the brutal facts of where do we drop the ball with these kids? No finger-pointing, but let's sit down and do some problem-solving," Monteith said. Her first recommendation is for adults to rethink how they respond to "bad behavior" and to consider it might be an indicator of trauma or instability in a child's life.

Schools can take the lead with what Monteith refers to as a "trauma-informed approach," but it's not something they can do alone. "If we are somehow missing the boat with this many kids with disabilities: How do we identify the common denominator? And how do we begin to look at our system and where the cracks are?" she said.

The system she's referring to includes agencies like the Wyoming Department of Education, local law enforcement and the Department of Family Services. Together, Monteith wants them all to consider, "What's going on that's preventing us from doing a better job?" To answer that question, it's clear from educators like Laramie One's Eric Jackson and Park Six's Peg Monteith that statewide data would be a good start.

Tennessee Watson currently has a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. She'll be returning in 2020 to follow this story and other juvenile justice issues. 

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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