Navigating Your Way through Class-Action Lawsuits

Article excerpt

Louisiana's secure care facilities for juveniles were the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice during the late 1990s. The Justice Department investigation centered on quality of life issues, including protection from harm; medical, dental and mental health services; and meeting the educational needs of the youths in the state's four juvenile justice facilities. The investigation followed a visit and a critical report generated by Human Rights Watch in October 1995. After numerous reports and document sharing during the next couple of years, the Louisiana Department of Corrections and Public Safety, private plaintiffs and the Justice Department negotiated an agreement in November 1999 to settle the education claims of the litigation. Subsequently, a second agreement was signed in September 2000, which addressed the medical, dental and mental health care, and protection from harm concerns.

While there were several initiatives that contributed to the success of Louisiana's juvenile justice educational programs and thus, the dismissal in January 2003 of the settlement agreement, there were five key initiatives that promoted the vision and mission of improving educational services for the youths in the department's custody. They included writing an implementation plan, establishing facility leadership teams, creating individual learning plans (ILP) for each student, conducting the child search process and monitoring quality assurance.

Implementation Plan

One of the first tasks of the Education Section of the Office of Youth Development was to write a statewide implementation plan. The plan essentially referenced each paragraph of the agreement and delineated the course of action that the state would take to meet the terms of each one. Estimated timelines also were included in the narrative of the plan.

The implementation plan provided detailed steps as to how the state and schools would achieve the requirements of the agreement. Included in each section were appropriate forms and draft policy statements encompassing the intent of the agreement. The plan addressed improvement in the following areas: staffing needs; the school day; prevocational and vocational programming; special education screening, evaluation and individual education program (IEP) development for special education students; confidentiality; classroom construction; instructional materials; teacher recruitment and training; substitute teachers; the correctional education curriculum; the automated record system for correctional education; development and implementation of effective instructional strategies; and the quality assurance plan.

The plan had to be written within six months of signing the agreement. While this was quite an effort, the plan provided needed direction for both central office and field staff. It formed the framework and foundation for Louisiana's juvenile justice teachers to move the system's educational program in the right direction in a unified, planned manner. Finally, the activity of writing the plan forced the educational leadership to develop the vision of how the juvenile justice system would transform educational services for youths in Louisiana's secure care facilities.

Leadership Teams

Fully realizing that the task of meeting the terms of the agreement and providing a quality-filled educational program was beyond simply the central office staff, school administrators and facility administrators, the state director of education established a leadership team at each school to act as a catalyst for change. The leadership teams were comprised of school administrators; regular, special and vocational educators; guidance counselors; librarians; and assessment staff.

The approximately 10 team members from each school were selected because of their commitment to excellence and change and their ability to work as a team. The team members spent 20 hours in training on the elements of the implementation plan. …