Reposted from the Clarion-Ledger:
When the special education system fails youth and they end up in jail, many stay there for years or decades. The vast majority of adults in American prisons have a disability, according to a 1997 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey. Experts say the numbers likely haven’t changed much, and attribute the nation’s bloated prison population — which has grown 700 percent since 1970 — in part to deep problems in the education of children with special needs.
In Mississippi and across the country, the path to prison often starts very early for kids who struggle to manage behavioral or emotional disabilities in low-performing schools that lack mental health care, highly qualified special education teachers, and appropriately trained staff. Federal law requires schools to provide an education for kids with disabilities in an environment as close to a regular classroom as possible. But often, special needs students receive an inferior education, fall behind, and end up with few options for college or career. For youth with disabilities who end up in jail, education can be minimal, and at times, non-existent, even though federal law requires that they receive an education until age 21.
“Young people who generally end up in trouble were not prepared from the beginning educationally,” said Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office. A 2013 report by the Minneapolis-based PACER Center, a parent training center, warned that one of the biggest reasons students end up in the corrections system is school failure. “Early education and nurturing is absolutely critical,” said Fitzgerald. “Children whose needs are met at an early age are able to go to school ready to learn…They’re much less likely to be discipline problems in the classroom.”