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Former detainees sue over alleged education breakdown at juvenile camp

Three plaintiffs allege teachers at an L.A. County probation camp routinely missed class, punished students for seeking instruction and awarded a diploma to an illiterate student.

January 13, 2010|By Garrett Therolf

Three plaintiffs who were incarcerated by the Los Angeles County Probation Department as minors filed a class-action complaint in federal court Tuesday alleging a total breakdown in the school at Camp Challenger in Lancaster.

The three allege that teachers at the county's largest probation camp routinely missed classes without explanation, punished students who asked for instruction by sending them out of the classroom and, in the case of one plaintiff, awarded a high school diploma despite the fact that the student was illiterate.

"Our months-long investigation has uncovered a scandal of dimensions that would make Dickens shudder," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, which joined Public Counsel and the Disability Rights Legal Center to represent the youths.

The plaintiffs asked that a judge issue an injunction ordering officials to meet minimum education standards, but they said they hoped to reach a binding settlement with the county before going to trial.

Los Angeles County Office of Education Supt. Darline Robles, the lead defendant in the case, said through a spokeswoman that she would make no public comment on the allegations.

In a prepared statement, her spokeswoman, Margo Minecki, said, "We take allegations about our educational programs seriously, and we will address any substantive issues that need to be resolved."

Minecki went on to defend her office, saying: "We are proud of the educational programs we provide youth detained at Challenger and at all of our 19 Juvenile Court Schools located at detention facilities around L.A. County."

The Probation Department, also listed as a defendant, did not respond to a request for comment.

The plaintiff who graduated unable to read or write was identified by a pseudonym, Casey A., and alleged that teachers helped him gain academic credits -- and helped the school earn state reimbursement for his instruction -- by feeding him answers on state exams.

Another plaintiff, identified as Miguel B., said he was confined to a solitary cell containing only a cot and was slipped school work under the door with no opportunity for instruction for more than two months.

The third plaintiff, Carl C., is a 17-year-old with the reading comprehension ability of a second-grader. He alleges that he was repeatedly kicked out of class, causing him to fall further behind.

"Studies show the unsurprising fact that students who do not learn to read or write or who do not receive an appropriate education are far more likely to commit crimes and be incarcerated as adults," said Laura Faer of Public Counsel. "That is why Challenger's practices are not just plainly in derogation of the law, they are the moral equivalent of placing a child in handcuffs and throwing away the key."

According to the plaintiffs' attorneys, their investigation showed that 95% of the 650 students at Challenger consistently scored below proficiency on state exams.

"It is not a secret that the Probation Department is in shambles," said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "The department needs to be overhauled from top to bottom."

With the impending retirement of Probation Chief Robert Taylor, Yaroslavsky said, "We are going to be entering a transitional period and the new chief will have his or her work cut out for them."

Regarding the Office of Education, whose board is appointed by the county Board of Supervisors, Yaroslavsky said: "To the extent that things have gone wrong, we need to hear a response from the superintendent.

"She is going to have to answer to this at some point."

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