State education officials order CPS to fix special education issues for students behind bars

Jonah Newman

The Cook County Juvenile Detention Center and Juvenile Court building on Chicago’s Near West Side.

Update (April 14, 6:10 p.m): After this story was published, the Illinois State Board of Education sent Injustice Watch a heavily redacted copy of its findings from the investigation into alleged special education neglect at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School.  You can read that report at the end of the article. This is a developing story.

The Illinois State Board of Education has ordered Chicago Public Schools to fix problems with special education services for students at the high school in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

The state’s corrective action plan comes after two legal aid groups filed a complaint with ISBE back in November alleging that CPS “essentially halted” special education services during the Covid-19 pandemic for students at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School inside the detention center.

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The groups, Equip for Equality and Legal Aid Chicago, alleged that officials at Jefferson failed to provide proper instruction, therapeutic services, or a certified special education teacher for special education students, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by Injustice Watch.

The legal aid groups said the school also “had no plan” for how to conduct initial evaluations for students who might have been eligible to receive special education services within the 60 days required by federal law.

ISBE provided Injustice Watch with a heavily redacted copy of the agency’s findings, which were issued on March 31. The agency redacted the details of the corrective action plan, but a spokesperson for the agency said the plan was “thorough” and that the district must comply by May 3. The plan also includes monitoring for a year and documentation requirements through February 2022, the spokesperson said.

CPS is already under a three-year district-wide corrective action plan that began in 2018, after a WBEZ investigation found that the district’s overhaul of the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services resulted in delayed and denied services to children in the district’s special education program. Later, special education advocates filed a complaint with ISBE, which led to a public inquiry and a state-appointed monitor to oversee reforms to the district’s special education program.

In an email exchange obtained by Injustice Watch, a district official expressed hopes that the state would step up to “take on the juvenile justice system,” in light of challenges similar to those named in the legal aid groups’ complaint.

Students at the detention center can range between ages 10 to 16 and are enrolled at Jefferson while awaiting trial. Compared to the CPS population as a whole, students there are disproportionately Black and from low-income households. When CPS conducted the district’s annual 20th-day enrollment count in September, nearly half of the 144 students at Jefferson were required to receive special education services — more than three times the district as a whole — 87% were Black, and 10% were Latinx.

Jaclyn Ellwein, a staff attorney with Legal Aid Chicago, acknowledged the challenges of serving a transient student population that changes at the whim of judges who decide whether a child remains detained. But, she said, that doesn’t absolve the district of its responsibility to comply with students’ individualized education program, a plan that identifies students as eligible for special education services and outlines the accommodations they should receive.

“CPS is legally mandated to provide services that are within a student’s IEP, regardless of if they’re there for a week or if they’re there for a year,” she said. “Those legal mandates don’t go away just because a student is transient.”

City and state school officials declined to answer questions for this story. Jefferson’s principal, Leonard Harris, did not respond to a request for comment.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for CPS said the district remains “committed to continually working with partners and stakeholders to address their concerns” but did not elaborate.

A spokesperson for the Cook County chief judge’s office, which oversees the detention center, declined to comment on the complaint. But on Wednesday, Chief Judge Timothy Evans announced a ‘blue ribbon’ committee to “examine current JTDC procedures and outcomes.”

“We want juveniles at the facility to have an opportunity to become better educated, better adjusted, and better able to become healthy and productive members of society once they leave the facility,” Evans said in a statement.

‘There are so many constraints in this environment’

The complaint comes to light in the wake of broader concerns from parents and special education advocates, who told the South Side Weekly earlier this year that the district failed to meet the needs of special education students during remote — and now hybrid — learning. Those parents did not specifically mention the students in juvenile detention.

But there are signs that similar problems as the ones named in the CPS complaint have plagued juvenile detention centers elsewhere in the country during the pandemic. Last week, attorneys filed a lawsuit against D.C. Public Schools for allegedly failing to provide required special education services to students in the D.C. jail for the past year. In November, The City reported that teachers said the 141 students in New York juvenile detention facilities could “only communicate with their instructors via text chat.”

A spike in Covid-19 cases at the Cook County juvenile detention center in November renewed concerns among public defenders and juvenile justice advocates about conditions at the JTDC and calls for a mass release of kids from the facility. But there were still 183 children detained there as of Tuesday morning. At least 87 detained children and 109 staff members have tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the Cook County chief judge’s office.

However, concerns about inadequate education and special education neglect in juvenile detention facilities were prevalent long before the pandemic. Research has shown that the majority of students in juvenile detention centers nationally do not receive special education, GED courses, or job training, and six in 10 will not reenroll in school when they are released, which fuels high rates of recidivism.

The problem disproportionately impacts students of color, especially Black and brown students, and students with disabilities, who are all overrepresented among the country’s population of detained youth.

“Those youth are already going through the traumatic experience of being incarcerated, and school could have been a reprieve for them,” said Garien Gatewood, director of the nonprofit Illinois Justice Project and a member of the county’s juvenile temporary detention center advisory board.

Providing therapeutic and special education services remotely “should have been one of the top priorities for CPS, for the school, and for the JTDC,” he said.

Lawyers for Legal Aid Chicago allege in the complaint that they were rebuffed when they asked district officials whether they would conduct a remote evaluation to determine whether one of their clients at the detention center was eligible for special education services.

District representative Hope Sharp, who oversees special education services at Jefferson and 22 other schools, and district lawyer Marlene Fuentes told them that remote evaluations could not be done because there was only one laptop at Jefferson, and it was being used for remote learning in the classroom, the lawyers alleged.

One student who was supposed to have a dedicated special education teacher and social worker was instead receiving the same instruction as their peers by watching their teacher through a television, the groups alleged.

The legal aid groups implored ISBE to open an investigation into Jefferson and to require CPS to find ways to make up the lost time for the students who have been denied special education services. They also sent the complaint to Laura Boedeker, the state-appointed monitor in charge of overseeing special education services at CPS under the corrective action plan.

Emails between CPS and ISBE officials obtained by Injustice Watch suggest that the state inquired about special education services at Jefferson after the complaint was filed and shed light on some of the legal groups’ allegations.

In an email sent two weeks after the complaint was filed, Boedeker asked CPS Deputy Chief Rebecca Parker, one of the district’s top special education officials, whether services such as occupational therapy or social work were being provided to students at Jefferson. Parker did not respond, according to copies of the emails obtained by Injustice Watch under the Freedom of Information Act. Two weeks later, Boedeker sent Parker a follow-up email.

The following week, Boedeker contacted Sharp, who confirmed that students with an IEP at Jefferson were interacting with teachers and social workers through a single laptop connected to a large TV monitor in their “pods,” or living units. The students were not allowed to touch the laptop, and the guards removed them after the class or session was over, Sharp wrote.

“There are so many constraints in this environment,” Sharp wrote, adding that she hopes “ISBE can take on the juvenile justice system.”

Kelly Garcia is a freelancer covering education with bylines in The TRiiBE and South Side Weekly. She was previously a Civic Reporting fellow for City Bureau.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the state board of education’s role in Chicago Public Schools’ special education program.