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New York inspector general to Hochul: Don't leave incarcerated children behind in education reforms

Buffalo News - 2/22/2024

Feb. 22—New York State Inspector General Lucy Lang has issued a clarion call to Gov. Kathy Hochul and state education leaders.

Remember the plight of incarcerated students in the coming wave of education reforms.

"We have to be vigilant to the issue — it's a tragedy in state custody," said Lang, whose office focuses on accountability but does not have authority over the state Education Department, which answers to the Board of Regents, or the governor.

Lang's career stints as a prosecutor, educator in jails and now inspector general have produced a deep understanding of how kids may end up in juvenile detention, revealing links between learning differences, frustration in the classroom and aggressive behavior that results — and the potential for those young people to become incarcerated.

Hochul's Back to Basics plan to improve students' reading proficiency, teased in her state budget preview, will invest $10 million toward tailoring reading instruction to scientifically proven methods by which children best learn how to read.

The "science of reading" instructional approach includes strategies that generally stress phonetic skills and encourage students to "decode" words on their way to building their vocabulary and comprehension. The governor has also approved a task force that will help students overcome dyslexia.

Lang also sees a state responsibility for a student population left behind. Through personal experiences, she and leaders of two Buffalo-area organizations describe a juvenile youth detention system with barriers so immense that even dogged efforts by prison instructors and re-entry case workers cannot fully recover the academic ground lost after a student is charged with a crime.

Lang, Our Lady of Victory Human Services Principal Rachael Refermat and Peaceprints of WNY Chief Executive Officer Cindi McEachon have seen inequities in prison instruction compared to the general population and strive to give young people within it a realistic second chance.

McEachon describes it as a "paramilitary system" that often treats incarcerated youth as inferior and less deserving of educational rights.

"It's the humanity that's missing," she said, describing an ongoing fight against the label of being "bad kids."

The 'tragedy' of custodyAfter years pursuing prison sentences for youthful offenders as a Manhattan district attorney, Lang then witnessed firsthand the bleak realities of secure detention centers as a college instructor for inmates. As inspector general during the last two years, her platform has permitted her to publicly appeal for change. She recently toured New York's 44 prisons and nine juvenile detention facilities.

"Haphazard" was how Lang described education in prisons, which have no standard curriculum because New York relies on "local control," wherein school districts can determine their curriculum preferences. The lack of resources and attention clash with tremendous needs of students. Incarcerated youth display learning differences at a higher rate than the regular population, she found. The dangerous ripple effects young students with special needs may experience can take them down a dark path, she realized.

Her daughter, Tessa, was diagnosed with dyslexia last year after entering first grade. Before the diagnosis, Lang said Tessa shared openly her frustrations with reading, telling her mother that she would begin at the same time as her friends but would still be on the first page while they were on page four. "How are they doing that?" Tessa wondered to her mother.

"It was alienating to her because she was not progressing as quickly as her peers," Lang said. Tessa's behavior became problematic. "She was acting out with dyslexia," her mother said. "It was reminiscent of the students in prison."

Refermat has been principal at the Erie County Youth Services Detention Center, at 810 E. Ferry St., for the last three years. She estimated that 35% to 40% of students enter the facility with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), or legal documents that act as tailored learning plans for students with disabilities. She said IEPs are generally split between students with learning differences and emotional disturbances. Many are united by some kind of trauma.

"Trauma affects every area of life," Refermat said. "It has an impact on learning."

About 15% of students in the nation's kindergarten through 12th grade population have special needs, according to Pew Research Center.

A chief challenge, Refermat said, is how youth are grouped at the detention center in Buffalo'sEast Side, which holds ages 13-18. Their living "pods" are determined by the severity and nature of their crimes, and it's with these pods they attend classes. This tends to generally separate the eight different groups by age, but not at all by educational achievement.

For example, two ninth graders, an 11th grader and a 12th grader might be in the same class, but the freshman might read at a fourth-grade level, while the junior may have already passed an English Regents exam. Unlike in a public school, where struggling students might receive individualized attention outside the classroom from specialists, detention center teachers must "scaffold" their lessons to connect with this wide breadth of learners.

Teachers usually cannot use textbooks or anything that could be a weapon, or any electronic device that could connect to the internet. Photocopying lessons is a common approach, Refermat said, but without paper clips or staples.

Constant student turnover is another struggle, she said. In one week earlier this month, four students left while another eight arrived.

McEachon called the facility a "gateway," given the many reasons someone may be sent to the detention center: awaiting a court date, placement in another facility or stationed there indefinitely.

Many students come from Buffalo Public Schools, Refermat said, but youth from other districts and charter schools arrive, as well. It's busy, too.

"The building is so full that teachers are operating without prep periods," she said.

McEachon's nonprofit aims to avoid repeat prison stints. Peaceprints' case workers attend court hearings, communicate with attorneys and assist with housing, food and educational placement to help move of some of the facility's most challenged youth back into the community. Workers continue to be a resource for up to a year after release.

Peaceprints' Empower Youth program has grown exponentially in the last eight years, but McEachon said the nonprofit runs into hurdles as simple as accessing the juvenile detention center. Security shutdowns, which she said occur at East Ferry regularly, often prevent work from being done.

Circumstances do not immediately get easier once a youth re-enters society, in part because they've fallen behind academically.

"Kids aren't in school, they're not getting the education they should be getting, and it has an effect on their school placement," said McEachon, who's also a member of the Buffalo School Board.

When they return to the public school system, many incarcerated youth from Buffalo are assigned to the Academy School, the district's alternative option that has changed locations multiple times in the last few years.

About 35% of the Academy Schools' students have been suspended this year, according to the district's data dashboard. School suspensions are an important identifier in students that may eventually be incarcerated.

Finding hope

Refermat extols the efforts of her seven teachers — they're trying to hire one more — and noted how two are certified in special education. Through her team's effort to "mimic and parallel" outside schools, Refermat said incarcerated youth meet state standards, pass Regents exams and earn high school diplomas, just like their peers outside the center.

"We don't take their education as a joke," she said.

Small class sizes in the detention center — in place for safety reasons — have an added benefit in teachers' quest to individualize their instruction as much as possible. In addition to core subjects, electives such as "life skills" are offered.

The Erie County Department of Mental Health has a presence on-site at East Ferry, too. Counselors have proven particularly useful for emotionally disturbed students, the principal said.

Refermat said she is in regular communication with Buffalo Public Schools about curriculum and professional development opportunities that can complement her teachers' experience. "Teachers have different tricks to help kids along," she said.

Peaceprints' Empower Youth has made a dent in the rate of recidivism, as it's dropped to 7% for cases in which the organization is involved. Patience and forgiveness are two traits that make a difference, McEachon said, especially when youth through their behavior may test case workers' dedication.

"We understand there are going to be hiccups," she said. "We won't cut you out or let you go."

The bigger issue

The inspector general's call acknowledges the innate challenges of learning in juvenile detention facilities, which are rife with students struggling with mental health, past trauma, behavior challenges and learning differences.

Lang is grateful her daughter received individualized attention and a special curriculum. Because of the resources afforded her, Tessa is showing immense progress in her fight with dyslexia. Lang knows not everyone gets that help and can avoid a slippery slope.

"Mine," she said, "is an incredibly fortunate story."

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