Challenger Memorial Youth Center in Lancaster is both Los Angeles County's largest juvenile detention camp and its greatest failure.
It costs as much as $50,000 a year to house a youth at Challenger -- about the same amount as tuition and room and board at an Ivy League university. But that's where the comparison ends. The facility's school is appalling, with 95% of its students scoring below proficiency on state exams.
Challenger is the target of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into mistreatment and poor supervision of the 650 students housed at the facility's six juvenile camps. It was cited in a 2009 county Probation Commission report as operating a "broken" school system. And this month, our coalition of nonprofit organizations filed a lawsuit asking that the county be ordered to meet at least minimum standards in educating our community's most at-risk youth.
A young man we identify in court papers as Casey A. was kept in custody at Challenger during his high school years and given a high school diploma late last year, despite being unable to read or write. Rather than coming up with a strategy that would teach him to read, a teacher at Challenger appointed a "para-educator" to read assignments out loud to him. Knowing that Casey was illiterate, the staff fed him answers so that he could pass the required state exams.
Miguel B., another student who was at Challenger for much of the last year, was confined for more than two months in a solitary cell containing only a cot. During this time, the school provided him with two hours or less of educational instruction per day. He was also denied access to textbooks, physical education and time outdoors -- all in violation of the law. On some days, he received no educational instruction at all. On other days, his instruction consisted of nothing more than copies of school materials shoved under his cell door. On those days, he never saw a teacher or had any interaction with other students.
These stories are not isolated examples. Students at the facility are routinely excluded from class without cause or proper procedure. Teachers miss class without explanation or show up late without consequences. Students have been punished simply for asking for basic educational services. Despite the high incidence of reading deficits among students housed at Challenger, the school fails to systematically screen students for reading problems, and the staff is not trained to intervene effectively when problems are identified. Those who can read often do not have access to textbooks.
Students are sometimes punished by having to stand outside for hours in 100-degree heat during the school day. They are shown movies in lieu of instruction. It is commonplace at Challenger that students do not receive even the state-required minimum amount of instructional time.
Many of the kids held at the facility already face incredible challenges. Although they often have the tough demeanor that comes from growing up in tough circumstances, many of them do want to learn.
But they are at severe risk, and research has shown again and again that those who leave high school without having mastered basic reading and math skills are far more likely to commit crimes and be incarcerated as adults. More than 80% of prison inmates are high school dropouts, and a high percentage are unable to read. In California, we spend billions each year on adult prisons and incarcerate about 150,000 people.
Studies have also shown, though, that when juvenile facilities focus on rehabilitation and literacy, they can dramatically reduce recidivism. Moreover, there are proven and well-known educational strategies and methods to address the learning needs of even the most challenged youth.
Giving these kids a good education is not just good policy: It's the law. State law mandates that juvenile detention facilities in California, including county probation camps like Challenger, exist solely to rehabilitate, not to punish. Our theory of juvenile justice is predicated on facilitating a second chance. At Challenger, by denying kids the most important tool they need to succeed, the county of Los Angeles makes virtually certain kids don't get that chance.
It is time for the county to swiftly and comprehensively address these violations. It needs to bring in personnel and experts who can turn a dysfunctional system around and start actually educating kids in desperate need. With every day that passes, more children are needlessly lost.
Mark Rosenbaum is chief counsel
at the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. Laura Faer is the directing attorney of the Children's Rights Project at Public Counsel. Shawna L. Parks is the legal director at the Disability Rights Legal Center.