A cell inside the proposed youth unit at Angola. (Plaintiffs' exhibit in Alex A v. Edwards)

Schools in Louisiana’s juvenile detention facilities are routinely closed for weeks at a time, often don’t offer enough credits for students to complete grades, and fail to maintain sufficient records, forcing many kids to repeat grades and drop out at much higher rates than schools in the community, according to a new report released by Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

The report, released Monday, details a series of problems experienced by juvenile detainees at facilities operated by the state Office of Juvenile Justice and offers suggestions for improvement. But LCCR representatives say irreversible damage has already been done and must be addressed to help current and future students. 

The study’s authors also noted a failure of the system to provide special education services, courses required to earn a state diploma and infantile work graded solely on participation. 

April Leggett told The Lens that her son has been in custody at the Acadiana Center for Youth at Bunkie for three years. He is 19, and in the 11th grade — but Leggett says that he tells her his work frequently consists of simple packets of material, and teachers are rarely present to give him guidance. When teachers are around, they have little interest in helping him, Leggett said. 

An August report by The Advocate that reviewed hundreds of incident reports from 2021 found that school at the Acadiana Center for Youth at Bunkie was frequently canceled for days at a time due to lack of staff, internet issues, or because things had gotten “too unruly.”

Her son also has an individualized education plan — commonly known as an IEP.  But she says that he rarely meets with a special education instructor, despite regular assurances from OJJ that he will. (The Louisiana Special School District, a separate agency, is responsible for special education services in state detention facilities. A spokesperson for the Special School District did not respond to a request for comment.)

“They keep on telling him they’re going to help him, but they’re not doing what they say they’re going to do,” Leggett said. “They’re not keeping their word.”

Allison Zimmer, with LCCR, said OJJ routinely fails to offer students the proper support.

“They would come home and find out that they were in the wrong grade, or that they had taken classes that they weren’t actually prepared for, they didn’t have the prerequisites to take, or they got straight A’s, but they weren’t able to pass the standardized tests that they needed to pass to graduate,” she said in an interview with The Lens last week. 

“These are kids who are often actually getting quite good grades in OJJ custody, and they are doing everything they’re supposed to be doing. They’re attending school, when school is offered to them. And I know the report lays out in detail, it’s frequently not offered all that regularly, it’s really common for it to be shut down. But they’re going when they’re given those opportunities, and they’re participating when they’re given those opportunities. And yet, they leave and they’ve maybe only passed a credit or two and then they have to often repeat the full year because of the way the credit system works in the community.”

Children at OJJ reported transcript issues — which have been a problem in the New Orleans public school system as well. Students were often offered the wrong courses or the same courses again and again, neither of which helped them work toward a diploma, the report states. Other students have said they are assigned to courses based on their dorm assignments and not the courses they need to take, according to the report. 

Graduation rates at OJJ facilities are significantly lower than the state average, the report shows. Students said they were also routinely punished by having school canceled because of fights or other incidents by other detainees. 

Special education services insufficient

Juvenile prisons, just like all local education agencies (or LEAs), must provide special education services for students with disabilities as required by federal law. Special education in juvenile facilities falls to the Special School District. 

“Louisiana appears to be one of the few — or possibly only — states that divides responsibility for general and special education across two agencies,” the report states.

The report has examples of students, including a student named Dante, who had an IEP and was housed at the Acadiana Center for Youth at St. Martinville for three months. The entire facility had no education services for months after it opened last year.

“Although Dante had an IEP that entitled him to one-on-one lessons multiple times a week and 30 minutes of individual school-based counseling services once a week, he did not receive any of those services,” the report states

Students in OJJ facilities are significantly more likely to be Black and more likely to be considered economically disadvantaged than the state’s overall student population. Additionally, 20 to 50 percent of these children have learning and behavioral disabilities that entitle them to special education services, according to the report.

While OJJ facilities are required to provide these services, student experiences like that of Dante’s leave lingering questions about how often adequate services are provided.

“Juvenile prisons may not change a child’s IEP simply due to a lack of resources or staffing,” the report states

Though the Special School District is responsible for providing special education services to students in OJJ facilities, the Louisiana Department of Education is responsible for monitoring school districts and ensuring those services are provided. Asked how LDOE ensures special education services are provided, spokesman Ted Beasely didn’t offer detailed information. 

“As required by federal and state law, the LDOE has numerous active and passive compliance regulations and procedures in place to fulfill its responsibility to assist, support, supervise, monitor, and enforce compliance with the IDEA and state law,” he wrote in an email this week. 

Additionally, students who miss special education services required by their IEP are entitled to make-up services and time — which are called “compensatory services” in the special education world. 

“Compensatory services are a legal remedy available when an LEA fails to comply with IDEA’s procedural or substantive requirements and should be made on a case by case basis by LEAs and parents or a third-party decision-maker,” Beasely wrote. 

The state department of education does measure and rate schools based on their performance. OJJ schools are considered in need of “comprehensive intervention.”

Questions about department oversight

The study found OJJ fails to take advantage of supports offered by the Louisiana Department of Education, including additional technology. Additionally, the department offered few answers for some concerns raised by advocates, including the failure to track attendance or discipline in the facilities. And OJJ facilities are categorized by the state as in need of “comprehensive intervention,” a designation give to schools with noticably low test scores among certain subgroups of students. 

Zimmer has heard those complaints.

“Teachers repeatedly saying, ‘I don’t have the technology I need, I don’t have the books I need, I don’t have the materials I need.’ So, we looked at the percentage of total budget that’s devoted to like Central Office overhead. And it was about double for OJJ schools as the average in the state. So I think that that’s part of it, that a lot of the money is being used and devoted to administration,” she said. “I worry that it’s not being not being used to fund materials that are necessary. “

She said it’s common for kids to be unable to log onto classes because they have internet issues. 

“It seems like there’s some old infrastructure and a lot of these OJJ facilities (as far as) technology. And that is especially because OJJ does rely on remote learning.”

The report claims that LDOE does not track attendance or discipline at OJJ facilities. The state offered a passive answer when asked about those two claims, and only addressed students with disabilities. 

“The LDOE regulations require OJJ, like every other LEA/school district, to report attendance and grades of SWDs,” Beasely wrote. 

Regarding attendance, he said, “The department has a process for collecting attendance from all school systems, including OJJ. We have asked them to report attendance based on which students are coming to class.”

One interviewee in the report alleged that OJJ facilities don’t use Tier 1, or the highest quality, curriculum. But as of its most recent legislative report, Beasely said OJJ facilities were using Tier 1 material. 

The Angola plan

Meanwhile, advocates fear that a state plan to move around two dozen kids in custody to a facility on the campus of Angola, which a federal judge ruled could move forward last week, could make matters even worse. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the plan to move some youth detainees to Angola in July following a string of incidents at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish, and officials say the facility will house a “Transitional Treatment Unit,” or TTU, that will provide temporary programming for kids in custody who have the most serious behavioral issues, according to OJJ. 

But civil rights attorneys in a class-action lawsuit attempting to block the transfer have argued that given the difficulties the office has had with staffing, finding enough teachers, tutors  and special education instructors for a whole new facility — particularly one in a remote part of the state — is not feasible. 

They also have argued that because the TTU  program will only house students temporarily — it is designed to only last a matter of weeks before kids are returned to another facility —   it will make it difficult for the office to continue to provide students with IEPs who may require special services,  such as a psychologist, speech therapist, or occupational therapist. 

​​”Because Defendants’ plan is to have students spend about four weeks in the Angola facility, the population will be shifting constantly, including different students with different disabilities and individualized entitlements to legally-required disability accommodations,” they wrote. 

OJJ officials assured the court that the kids at the Angola facility, which they have dubbed Bridge City Center for Youth at West Feliciana, will receive the same education that other kids in OJJ custody receive, and in fact, the teacher to student ratio will be higher than at other facilities. In addition, they said there will be two special education teachers assigned to the facility, and that any individual requirements for IEP will be met. 

But they also admitted at a court hearing earlier this month that many of those positions had not been filled yet.  And given that hiring is incomplete, the civil rights attorneys argued that there was “no evidence that OJJ will ensure an adequate number of special education certified teachers, tutors, and/or providers of special education ‘related services’ to accommodate the educational needs of the large proportion of students who have disabilities.” 

Those arguments fell short. In a ruling last Friday, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge said that despite reservations about the plan, there wasn’t enough evidence to show that education and special education services wouldn’t be provided. 

“The Court finds that the youth at BCCY-WF will be provided education, including special education, in accordance with the requirements of federal and state law, without interruption,” she wrote. 

It’s still not clear when kids will be moved to the facility, now that Dick has allowed the plan to move forward. During the hearing, OJJ officials said they hoped to be able to move kids by the end of September, but also conceded that a lot of work still needed to be done to get the facility ready — including more hiring of staff. 

“For security reasons, no specific information about the timeframe of the transfers will be released at this time,” a spokesperson for the agency told The Lens in an email. “However, OJJ will advise the media when the first group of youth is safely at the West Feliciana temporary facility.”