College of Education *
College of Education *
Juvenile Justice Systems and Children with Disabilities


College of Education

Peter Leone Presents “Juvenile Justice Systems and Children with Disabilities,”
at National Academy of Sciences

COLLEGE PARK, MD (February, 2017) – On Feb. 2, College of Education professor Peter Leone presented “Juvenile Justice Systems and Children with Disabilities,” at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. An expert on students with disabilities and educational programs in institutional settings, Dr. Leone highlighted the links between disability and school failure, as well as the vulnerability of special education students to juvenile justice system involvement.

Students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended or expelled, particularly if they are classified as having an emotional disturbance. School failure, such as not passing courses or repeating a grade, often leads students to disconnect from school entirely.

“If you suspend kids frequently enough and retain them in grade, sooner or later kids get the message that they don’t belong in school,” Dr. Leone, faculty member in the Dept. of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education, said in an interview on Feb. 7 about his National Academy of Sciences’ presentation.

To illustrate his point, Dr. Leone cited a recent large-scale longitudinal study in Texas of close to a million students. The investigation, Breaking Schools’ Rules, found that nearly six in ten public school students were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades, with almost 75 percent of those enrolled in special education and more than 80 percent of African American male youth experiencing suspension or expulsion during that time period.

While the overall number of youth in the juvenile justice system has been decreasing in recent years, the percentage of children with disabilities in the juvenile justice system has increased. An increasing proportion of children with disabilities are referred to the courts by schools. A recent study of school-based referrals to the juvenile courts, completed by College of Education alumna Dr. Pamela Wruble, showed that in two states where data were available — Tennessee and West Virginia — special education students were more likely than their non-disabled peers to be referred by the school to the juvenile justice system.

Nationwide, about one-half of all youth placed in juvenile corrections were enrolled in special education prior to their incarceration.

“If we’re interested in children becoming responsible productive adults, we can’t disconnect them from schools and hand them over to the juvenile courts to solve problems. We have to create spaces in schools that support their learning,” Dr. Leone said. “Any kid who spends time in a juvenile justice setting is less likely to complete school.”

The Special Master for Education at Rikers Island Prison Complex, Dr. Leone monitors the status of education for inmates age 16 to 21 to ensure they are receiving educational services, including special services for those with disabilities. This monitoring role was spurred by a class action lawsuit brought against the prison; Dr. Leone has provided expert guidance in a number of court cases related to the provision of education in juvenile justice settings, as well as for incarcerated adults with developmental disabilities.

“Once children get locked up, they become even more disconnected from the mainstream,” Dr. Leone said. “In most states, the system to deliver educational services to incarcerated kids is inadequate.”

There is an increasing awareness among advocates and policy makers of the problems associated with school failure and exclusion of youth with disabilities from the public schools and their vulnerability to involvement in the juvenile justice system, Dr. Leone said. Frequently, litigation is a costly but effective remedy used by advocates, parents, and the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice to address this significant issue.



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