Md. needs a new approach to educating juvenile offenders

Like other children in the state, students in juvenile correctional facilities have rights to education including special education services and supports. However, Maryland has stumbled in meeting its statutory obligations.

The 2018 Maryland General Assembly passed, and Gov. Hogan signed, House Bill 1607, authorizing a pilot education program in one facility of the Department of Juvenile Services, beginning next school year. The legislation also established a work group to submit recommendations on juvenile justice to the governor and General Assembly by December 2019. Having worked with the agencies responsible for education in Maryland juvenile facilities (and many other states) for more than 30 years, I see this as an opportunity for the state to do the right thing.

Maryland has done poorly in providing education to incarcerated youth. Like other children in the state, students in juvenile correctional facilities have rights to education including special education services and supports. However, Maryland has stumbled in meeting its statutory obligations. The state has already endured two major lawsuits — one in 1985 and another in 2002 — challenging the adequacy of education services to youth in DJS facilities. These cases have been costly. In addition to wasting public funds and human resources, they have denied many youth the opportunity to develop essential skills. The litigation was also largely ineffective at institutionalizing lasting positive, system-level change.


Historically, DJS operated the education program in its facilities. However, in 2004, the General Assembly transferred the responsibility for education services within DJS facilities to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). Currently MSDE’s Juvenile Services Education System (JSES) division operates schools in all 13 DJS facilities.

During the past three years, staff from the University of Maryland have worked with MSDE to examine education services in DJS facilities. In January 2017, we released a report and commented on MSDE’s implementation of its strategic plan. The report noted:

“The most persistent problem that hobbles JSE[S]’s efforts to achieve the goals in its Strategic Plan and deliver high quality services to youth include the high rate of staff turnover and persistent staff vacancies. The state’s cumbersome hiring process at MSDE is not conducive to hiring teachers in a timely manner. The state hiring process contributes to these problems as does the culture within the leadership at JSE[S]. With regard to services to youth, JSE[S] has struggled and continues to struggle to provide individualized services and supports particularly for students eligible for special education services.”

The problems described in that 2017 report remain. With a few exceptions, MSDE has been unable to provide the leadership and infrastructure necessary to design and deliver quality education services to youth.

My work has taken me to Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, where I have monitored education services for juveniles who receive a much higher quality education than youth in Maryland DJS facilities. Other states including Oregon, Missouri and Massachusetts have developed funding formulas and education services to comply with statutory requirements and more adequately meet students’ needs.

At Rikers Island, the New York City Department of Education operates the education programs through District 79, which operates a number of alternative education programs in NYC.

In budgeting for education services, the Oregon Youth Authority allocates approximately twice the average per pupil cost for incarcerated youth.The Missouri Department of Social Services bills local school districts for the days youth spend in custody.

In Massachusetts, the Collaborative for Educational Services, a statewide education agency, coordinates education services in facilities throughout the state.

There are two high quality education programs for incarcerated youth in Maryland. At Silver Oak Academy in Carrol County, Rite of Passage, a private contractor, provides intensive academic, career and technical education services to youth placed there by DJS. At New Beginnings in Anne Arundel County, youth in the custody of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services of the District of Columbia attend the Maya Angelou Academy operated by the See Forever Foundation. Careful review of service delivery and funding models in other states as well as site visits to the Silver Oak Academy and New Beginnings should be on the agenda for those interested in reforming the system. Maryland’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, known as the Kirwan Commission, should also consider services for incarcerated youth as part of the state’s re-evaluation of funding formulas.

MSDE, DJS, and state policy makers need to take seriously the need for structural reform of services for the most academically deficient adolescents in the state. The work group established by the General Assembly has an opportunity to address long-standing problems with education services for incarcerated youth in Maryland. It is essential that youth leave DJS facilities more academically competent and better prepared to return to their communities.

Peter E. Leone is a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park; his email is