Navigating Your Way through Class-Action Lawsuits

By Lewis, Elijah; Gonsoulin, Simon | Corrections Today, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Navigating Your Way through Class-Action Lawsuits

Lewis, Elijah, Gonsoulin, Simon, Corrections Today

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. This activity allowed them to embrace the vision and mission of an educational program that provided a seamless delivery-of-services model.

The major tasks asked of the leadership team were to:

* Assist in writing the quality assurance plan;

* Develop the ILP and procedures;

* Participate in peer monitoring activities;

* Promote the implementation plan and newly initiated procedures and activities to not only meet the agreement terms but also create educational programs that are appropriate for youths in state care; and

* Develop and write specialized bulletins such as a systemwide vocational plan; an approach to the School Building Level Committee, which is a problem-solving group of school staff from various backgrounds who meet once a week; and the Section 504 plan for students defined as disabled.

The ongoing effort of the individuals that comprised the leadership teams was key to the successful dismissal of the agreement.

Individual Learning Plans

Within 14 calender days of intake, the diagnostic center educational staff initiates the first of two phases of the ILP for each juvenile entering secure care. The preliminary components of this first phase are written following a review of the youth's records and assessment reports, an individual interview with each youth, participation by education staff in the staffing process with medical and mental health staff, a disabilities screening and educational assessment. Additional components of the first phase of the ILP are demographic data; student interview questionnaire; Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) results, including the multireferenced report, which identifies skills that are mastered, partially mastered or not mastered; summary of the vocational interest inventory; and an initial placement summary, which includes mental, psychological and medical concerns, School Building Level Committee referral, history of special education, and program placement recommendations. The second phase of the ILP process is completed by school staff with input from the student at the secure care facility to which the youth is permanently assigned. Additionally, the youth's math, reading and language arts teachers contribute to the construction of his or her learning plan. Included in each student's ILP are:

* Educational needs (academic, vocational and special education);

* Subject area skills partially mastered and not mastered by the student, per his or her TABE results and multireferenced report;

* Identification of strengths;

* Identification of behavioral concerns;

* Behavioral accommodations; and

* Targeted benchmarks, per the state's content standard guide, which are to be addressed during each youth's educational experience while in agency custody.

A progress report is written every nine weeks addressing each skill area delineated in the youth's ILP. A copy of the final ILP and progress reports are sent to the youth, his or her case manager and parents. The plan is updated minimally each time the student is post-tested with the TABE or more frequently if the student masters the skills listed in his or her plan.

Child Search Activity

By the very nature of youths entering the secure care system on a continuous basis with little or no valid school records, correctional educators at times have difficulty making a definitive determination of grade placement or if a disability exists. The child search activity initiated three years ago promotes active search and decision making by an informed staff in the area of youths with disabilities.

The child search process begins two weeks after the youth has been transferred to one of the four secure care facilities. School personnel and treatment personnel review reports, data assessments, prior school records and historical treatment to determine if a disability may exist. The committee reviews current school performance, disciplinary reports and psychiatric data that have been collected since the youth entered the system. If the youth is experiencing difficulty in school, he or she is referred to the School Building Level Committee for further screening by the Child Search Committee. This problem-solving group determines a course of action for the youth that addresses academic and/or behavioral concerns. Often, interventions are put in place for prescribed periods of time. A second meeting is held after about two weeks to determine if the student has responded to the intervention and support. Ultimately, the committee will determine that one of the following actions is necessary for the youth to be productive in school: conduct no further action at this time and dismiss the student per stated documentation; conduct additional interventions; refer the student to determine Section 504 eligibility; refer the student to pupil appraisal personnel for support services; or refer the student to pupil appraisal personnel for an individual evaluation for special education services.

The ultimate goal of the child search activity is to ensure that youths who have not been successful in school and who are currently experiencing difficulty in the secure care school are screened for disabilities.

Quality Assurance Monitoring

The quality assurance/program improvement component of the educational program was the single most important initiative that moved the juvenile justice schools into full compliance with the settlement agreement. This component encouraged as well as demanded compliance with the agreement and promoted quality correctional education programming. As mentioned earlier, the leadership team members wrote the plan, bought into the process and promoted compliance at the building level.

The levels of quality assurance ranged from monthly record review to quarterly site visits led by the state director of education and central office educational staff and consisted of both formal and informal measures. Multiple data sources and various data collection procedures were established to obtain a reliable assessment of professional practices and performance. The quality assurance/program improvement component focused on the identification of patterns of compliance and noncompliance and did not rely solely on any single episode of noncompliance. The quality assurance/program improvement plan includes both formative and summative evaluation efforts, which were designed to improve education while the system moved toward competent compliance with the agreement.

There were three levels of on-site monitoring to ensure and review program compliance and promote improvement in Louisiana's correctional education programs beginning in September 2000.

Level One: Internal Monitoring. Two formal internal or self-monitorings were conducted each school year in September and March. The monitoring team was comprised of each school's leadership team. A report was written and a corrective action plan was submitted to the state director of education for review and approval. Now that the state has been released from the agreement, internal monitorings occur once per year in September.

Level Two: Peer Monitoring. Leadership team members from other schools in the system conducted the peer monitoring tours. The process was led by the state director of education and the central office education staff. This level of monitoring proved to be very beneficial to both the school being monitored and the leadership team members conducting the monitoring. The central office education staff used this opportunity to provide on-the-job training for leaders from other schools. The monitoring visit, which took place in January, lasted approximately three days.

Level Three: State Level Monitoring. This third level of monitoring took place twice per year in November and May. While the state director of education led this comprehensive state monitoring effort, there were two to three outside assessors on each team. These individuals were not employed by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections but were staff members from the local school system, college personnel involved in teacher preparatory programs, state Department of Education employees and independent educational consultants.

After the completion of each monitoring visit, the state director of education, along with the monitoring team members, conducted an informal exit citing strengths and weaknesses and areas of compliance and noncompliance. The facility administrator, school administration and leadership team members were present during the exit meeting.

A formally written report was disseminated by the state director of education to the Department of Justice, education experts for the department, a court-appointed expert, the plaintiffs, secretary and assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, wardens and school administrators. Each school's leadership team completed a corrective action plan to address areas of noncompliance within 10 days of receipt of the formal report.

The components of the quality assurance/program improvement plan were divided into two major sections or documents: the compliance document and the program improvement document. The compliance section addressed mandatory agreement issues and included personnel, instruction, special education programming, vocational and prevocational programming, library services and educational support.

The program improvement section addressed the quality and comprehensiveness of the educational programming offered to youths in state care. The major areas in need of improvement included the student focus group, teacher focus group, student questionnaire, teacher questionnaire, aide questionnaire, school administration interviews, facility administration interviews, security interviews, classroom observations and contextual observations/school climate.

The effort was successful as illustrated by Table 1, which identifies the level of compliance with the agreement at the four facility schools for the first monitoring (in 2000) to be 65 percent to 78 percent. The state level of compliance just before monitoring dismissal by the Department of Justice conducted in 2002 ranged from 98 percent to 100 percent compliance with the agreement. It is apparent from the results of the monitoring that the quality assurance/program improvement plan was successful in moving the educational program in a productive direction and ultimately to compliance and dismissal from the agreement.

In addition to the five activities that had a major impact on the dismissal of the agreement mentioned in this article, there were additional initiatives that promoted quality schools in Louisiana's secure care facilities for youths, including:

* Writing correctional education curriculum guides that parallel the state's benchmarks in the areas of math, reading/language arts, science and social studies;

* Creating School Building Level Committee procedure manual;

* Conducting ongoing training of school administration and teaching staff on a statewide and local basis;

* Writing a systemwide vocational education plan;

* Establishing a statewide educational database for the juvenile school system;

* Establishing numerous tracking systems documenting a continuous effort to meet the individual needs of students;

* Making parental input in the IEP process mandatory;

* Participating in the state student accountability program;

* Constructing 10 new school buildings throughout the system;

* Making an effort to hire certified teaching staff;

* Establishing a correctional educator's pay scale based on 12 months of employment; and

* Establishing a maximum pupil-to-teacher ratio.

In order for a juvenile justice agency to maneuver through a settlement agreement, an implementation plan must be established, written, disseminated and taught to field staff. An individual must be hired who is capable of determining the course of action to bring the agency into compliance and defend its plan or vision to the Justice Department. Such a successful endeavor is accomplished only through involvement of leaders and front-line staff via staff development activities and the formation of projects that foster ownership. It is also important to establish a professional line of communication between the individual directing the state's initiative and the Justice Department expert. Finally, a quality assurance plan must be developed and written that encompasses the vision of the agency and enforces the terms of the agreement and the state's implementation plan at multiple levels of monitoring.


           Current Monitoring       Initial Monitoring
           Percentage--Spring 2002  Percentage--Fall 2000

Riverside   98                      75
Scenic      98                      70
Southside  100                      78
Westside    99                      65


Note: Table made from bar graph.

Elijah Lewis is assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Office of Youth Development. Simon Gonsoulin is the Louisiana state director of education. He may be contacted at (225) 219-7871.

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Navigating Your Way through Class-Action Lawsuits


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