When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools around the country to close in March 2020, children incarcerated in secure care facilities in Louisiana were left without any educational services for months. Many of LCCR’s clients were affected by this crisis, and they experienced significant learning loss and isolation as a result of educational gaps.
Students with disabilities in the custody of the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) were most affected by the educational disruption caused by the pandemic. These vulnerable students are significantly overrepresented in OJJ custody in Louisiana. According to one study conducted by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, up to 70% of children in the juvenile legal system have mental health, sensory, or learning disabilities that impact their performance in school.
For students with disabilities, educational gaps can have serious consequences, making it less likely that they will continue their educational career upon release from custody and increasing the risk that they will disconnect from school or drop out altogether. The loss of educational services at the beginning of the pandemic caused these children to fall further behind their peers and isolated them from the supportive educators and school-based social workers who can help them learn.
Under federal and state laws and regulations, students with disabilities are entitled to receive compensatory education, or make-up services, if they experience educational gaps that cause them to lose progress towards their academic and social, and emotional goals. Compensatory education includes academic tutoring, related services like speech therapy and counseling, and other academic and support programs designed to help students achieve their goals. For children with disabilities in OJJ custody, the Special School District is the agency responsible for evaluating students for compensatory services and providing any necessary programming.
LCCR became concerned that not all eligible students in OJJ custody were receiving necessary compensatory services or the special education services they needed well into the 2020-2021 school year. We filed public records requests to obtain policies and other records and documents from the Special School District, and determined that many students who should have received services had not yet been found eligible for those services. We also became concerned that special education services were still disrupted well over a year into the pandemic, and many students with disabilities in OJJ custody continued to experience long gaps in the provision of necessary services.
In the summer of 2021, we filed a formal demand letter with the Special School District requesting a more inclusive policy, consistent special education programming, and a reevaluation plan to provide services to all students who lost academic progress as a result of the pandemic. After a series of negotiation meetings, we agreed to a remedial plan with the Special School District in January 2022. This plan will ensure that all students with disabilities who have been in the custody of OJJ since March 2020—including students who have since been released or moved to other facilities—will be evaluated for compensatory services, provided all necessary programs, and given the support they need to pursue their academic goals. The Special School District has also agreed to make the process more inclusive of parental input. Compliance with the agreement will be reviewed by an independent monitor who will ensure that the Special School District meets the benchmarks and requirements of the agreement.
We are proud to have represented children with disabilities in OJJ custody throughout this process. We are very grateful that these students will now be able to receive the crucial academic and social support services they need and deserve under the law.