Detention Education Improved Juvenile Justice Beefs Up Programs

By Williams, Dave | The Florida Times Union, September 4, 1999 | Go to article overview

Detention Education Improved Juvenile Justice Beefs Up Programs


Williams, Dave, The Florida Times Union


DALTON -- When Dana Tolliver launches into a social studies lesson these days at the Dalton Regional Youth Detention Center, she does it with a new textbook in hand.

When special-education teacher Janetta Letson-McCoy gathers her students in a circle inside their new trailer classroom, she's teaching from a master curriculum guide.

Up-to-date textbooks and curriculum guides long have been standard fare in most schools. But in the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, they're a recent innovation, prompted in part by a threat from the federal government to take over the system unless the state agency mended its ways.

"We are a school system now," Letson-McCoy said. "This is like bowling with the pins in the pyramid setting and the lanes. Before, it was like lawn bowling. . . . This gives us more structure."

The Juvenile Justice Department agreed in March 1998, following a scathing report on the system by the U.S. Department of Justice, to spend $65 million over three years to upgrade the state's 30 juvenile detention facilities. Nearly $5 million of that was earmarked for the system's education component, including funds to hire more special-education teachers, improve vocational programs, expand classroom space and buy new books and other materials.

While all of the facilities are due to have new books and the system's first-ever curriculum guides in the classrooms by Oct. 1, the Dalton detention center already has the new amenities.

It's farther along than the other facilities because Juvenile Justice promised to expedite improvements there as part of the state's settlement of a lawsuit brought in 1996 by five juveniles. They charged that the Dalton site was understaffed and overcrowded, resulting in inadequate medical care, mental health treatment and educational opportunities.

Thomas O'Rourke, Juvenile Justice's associate superintendent of education, said the department's key goal is to make sure the material taught in the detention centers is the same as the curriculum mandated by the state Department of Education. That way, he said, students will receive credit when they leave the state's custody and return to public school.

"Fifty percent of the kids we get in our . . . [regional youth detention centers] are gone within 10 days," O'Rourke said. "They're either released, go into a community [correction] program or move through our system to a [youth detention center]. . . . We have so many kids coming and going that to get them into the right curriculum is difficult."

To accomplish its goal, the department now tests children not suspected of needing special education within 72 hours of their arrival. They then are given a 10-day lesson package, with material tied to the state curriculum, for one of three levels of ability.

"They're put on the level where they can best have success," O'Rourke said.

By the end of that 10-day period, O'Rourke said, the department should have received enough records from a student's previous school to be able to determine a placement for the rest of his or her stay.

Getting records from public schools promptly has been a long-standing problem for the department. …

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