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County weighs detention camp school reforms

Supervisors may vote today on a proposal that would give them regular oversight of changes in the way incarcerated youths are educated.

June 19, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Angered by a recent report criticizing the quality of schooling for youths in juvenile halls and camps, Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe is calling for major changes to education in the system, such as creating arts-themed classroom programs in detention facilities.

Recommendations last week by the Los Angeles County Children's Planning Council suggest revamping educational programs for incarcerated youths, having a single case manager handle all aspects of a teenager's rehabilitation and creating a separate county department devoted solely to juvenile justice.

County "departments are huge bureaucracies in and of themselves.... The fact that these are kids gets lost," said Jacquelyn McCroskey, the report's principal author and a social work professor at USC. She said the education innovations could include classes in which juveniles serving time could express themselves through music, dance or art.

The council's proposal, which calls for a more holistic, community-based approach to keeping young people out of detention, coincides with county efforts to overhaul the system while under federal scrutiny.

The county Probation Department is in the third year of a Justice Department consent decree that requires improvements in mental health services, hygiene, security and education in the county's three juvenile halls. The department has met, or is close to complying with, more than half the mandated changes, including access to mental health services, reduced use of restraints on youths and better suicide-prevention efforts.

The Board of Supervisors has approved millions of dollars in additional department funding for increased staffing and other improvements. But according to federal monitors, "inadequate staffing is, perhaps, the single greatest impediment to providing effective programming at the three juvenile halls."

Under Knabe's motion, the Probation Department would work with county officials to develop an education reform plan and would report to supervisors every two months.

"If we really want to reduce recidivism," Knabe said, the county needs "a strong education component inside camps and juvenile halls. We're in the midst of overhauling the system. This might be a great opportunity to" focus on schools. The board will consider Knabe's motion today.

An estimated 20% of the roughly 3,000 youths in the probation system require special education programs, about twice the proportion of special education students in the general school population, according to county data. During one day in April, 14% of juveniles at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar were not enrolled in school, according to the Children's Planning Council report.

Gregory Bell, 21, a youth organizer with the Children's Planning Council who spent about two years in juvenile halls and Camp Afflerbaugh in La Verne on weapons and vandalism charges, remembers frustration in classrooms there. Bell was placed in a special education class despite his 12th-grade reading level because he had acted out, he said.

"There was no interaction with the teacher, no dialogue or anything," Bell said. And the bleak, bare classrooms did not "really perpetuate learning," he said.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education, which runs schools in the halls and camps, is "always looking for new and innovative ways to help these young people succeed in school," according to a statement from agency spokeswoman Margo Minecki. More than 300 high-risk students taking classes while in the juvenile justice system earned high school diplomas or general equivalency diplomas last school year, Minecki said.

Agency officials "welcome the opportunity for continued collaboration with our partners in the Probation Department and other agencies to look at ways to improve the quality of educational services for students in the juvenile justice system," Minecki's statement said.

Initially, new curricula might include pilot programs of gender-specific or other specialized instruction at the two girls' camps near Santa Clarita, said Robert B. Taylor, the county's chief probation officer. Taylor, who supports Knabe's motion, hopes to focus new classroom programs at probation camps, where teenagers spend three to nine months, instead of the halls, where minors usually stay three weeks or less while awaiting adjudication of their cases.

Taylor also supports greater community collaboration but has concerns about splitting juvenile detention into its own department. He said the existing Probation Department -- which includes juvenile justice and adult probation -- better serves vulnerable young adults.

susannah.rosenblatt @latimes.com

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