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Service coordination between correctional and public school systems for handicapped juvenile offenders.

Service Coordination Between Correctional and Public School Systems for Handicapped Juvenile Offenders

A number of recurring themes relate to the provision of appropriate educational services to adjudicated youth, especially those with disabilities. An historical review of the literature indicates that correctional education programs have been plagued by a range of philosophical and programmatic concerns. For example, Horvath (1982) indicated that disagreement and uncertainty about the goals, needs, and objectives of correctional education result in a lack of comprehensive planning and interagency cooperation. Interagency cooperation and planning are further hampered by conflicting philosophies and goals of education and corrections agencies. Because maintenance of order and discipline are of central importance in correctional facilities, these custodial needs and educational needs of incarcerated youth and adults are often in conflict with one another (Horvath, 1982; Peterson, Friend, & Martin, 1976). Other obstacles that interfere with the ability of correctional facilities to provide effective education programs include the transitory nature of the population, conflicting agency mandates and philosophies, and the lack of interagency and intraagency cooperation.

The inherent problems are further compounded by the educational needs of handicapped offenders, a significant proportion of the incarcerated juvenile population. The literature consistently reports handicapped incidence rates ranging from 20% to 42% in the correctional population (Dunivant, 1982; Morgan, 1979; Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1985; Schuster & Guggenheim, 1982). This contrasts strikingly to the 10% to 12% prevalence of handicapping conditions in the general population (U.S. Department of Education, 1984). Since the passage of Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1974, correctional administrators have begun to pay greater attention to the special education programming needs of handicapped offenders in order to comply with legal mandates. Heightened awareness of the existence and needs of this population on the parts of both correctional and public school personnel has caused close scrutiny of actual compliance with and implementation of P. L. 94-142.

A recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) investigation of a large inner-city juvenile services agency identified a number of gaps in required special education service delivery, confirming the problems that practitioners have noted (Dodaro & Salvemini, 1985). This investigation supports theoretical discussions suggesting that linkages between the public school system and the correctional education system are needed, but are not being provided (Richey & Willis, 1982; Smith & Hockenberry, 1980; Smith, Ramirez, & Rutherford, 1983). As Rutherford et al. stated, "correctional education is underscored by the near absence of transitional programs. The courts, probation officers, and correctional education programs need to establish effective linkages with public schools to facilitate the exchange of educational information" (1985, p. 67). Dodaro and Salvemini (1985) pointed out that insufficient information, lack of service coordination, and poor information exchange affect the appropriate identification, placement, and education of handicapped juvenile offenders.

To date, little research has been conducted to examine current practices that facilitate the effective transition of handicapped, juvenile offenders into juvenile correctional institutions and reintegration back into the public schools. To provide a basis for further study of these issues, public school special education directors and correctional education directors in a five-state area were polled. Survey questions focused on information exchange, transference of records, liaison services, contact during incarceration, and referral for aftercare support services. Because space available precludes a discussion of each topic, only the major findings of the first three issues will be addressed in this article.



All (101) public school special education directors from local education areas (LEAs) in the five states forming the mid-Atlantic region of the country were identified from lists obtained from each state's Department of Education. Sample size in four states ranged from 3 to 29. The fifth state had an exceptionally large number of directors (101); therefore, a sample proportionate to the size of those in other states (20) was selected by using a random number table. In addition, all 43 juvenile correctional facilities that provide educational services in these states were identified from listings in the 1984-85 American Correctional Association (ACA) Directory. Of the two populations identified, telephone interviews were completed with a sample of 31 individuals (72%) from juvenile correctional facilities and91 persons (90%) from public school special education programs.

These telephone interviews were conducted either with program directors or persons designated by program directors as knowledgeable about the coordination of services between the correctional education system and the public education system.


A survey instrument was developed, with 13 questions addressed to correctional education personnel and 14 questions addressed to public education personnel. A branching technique was used to obtain further clarification about liaison issues. All questions were forced choice, based on a 5-point Likert scale (always, usually, sometimes, seldom, never). The instrument was developed in conjunction with a research consultant and reviewed by three correctional education specialists. It was tested with a graduate research class at The George Washington University.


Before the telephone interviews, letters explaining the research study and requests for interview times were mailed to the indentified program directors. Five doctoral research assistants were trained to assist with interviewing. Each interviewer received 2 hours of training, during which time mock interviews were performed, feedback given, and revisions made in interviewing procedures. Interviews were conducted via telephone during a 2-week period.

Although questions were close ended, additional comments were solicited when clarification was necessary. All comments, whether volunteered or solicited, were recorded. Due to the sensitive nature of the issues investigated in the survey, anonymity of respondent, facility, school, and state was assured. The length of the interview averaged approximately 10 minutes.


Frequency data were tabulated using the categories of: (a) liaison issues; (b) issues relating to transfer of records; (c) information exchange; and (d) information about referral for support services upon return to the public school system. The data collected in these categories were then analyzed by state, by total sample, and by type of educational services. Recorded comments were coded and categorized by interview question or issue.


Liaison Issues

Analysis of the data revealed that special education services were not generally coordinated between the correctional education and public school systems by a liaison, that is, a person who is hired specifically to coordinate student services between the correctional education and public education systems and who spends at least 75% of his or her time doing so. When comparing correctional and public education totals for all states, 71% of the correctional education supervisors and 79% of the public school special education directors stated that services are never coordinated by such a person. Some respondents indicated that they had designated a person to coordinate services, but that this was not the primary duty of the person. Estimates of the time used to coordinate services ranged from 10% to 50% of the person's time.

The majority of respondents who did not have a liaison agreed that there was a need for such a role in their state. Seventy-five percent of the public school special education directors and 64% of the correctional education supervisors agreed that there was a need for the establishment of a formalized liaison. About half of the respondents from each system indicated that they thought the hiring agent should be the state department of education.

Respondents from both the public school system and correctional education cited two major reasons against the establishment of liaison positions. A liaison was not deemed necessary when the system had a low incidence of handicapped adjudicated youth or when the director felt that the current system of coordination worked adequately. The correctional education directors were more likely than the public education directors to express disinterest in the liaison position and to express satisfaction with the present communication system. Although a total of 21 special education directors reported a low incidence of handicapped incarcerated youth, nine of these directors indicated a need for a liaison, despite the low incidence.

Information Exchange

The findings suggested that information about handicapping conditions and incarceration is not always transmitted. When a student enters a correctional facility, only 42% of the correctional education directors indicated that they were always or usually informed of handicapping conditions. The public school system was usually the source of the information (48%); other informants were the judicial system (29%) and the correctional system's assessment/processing center (29%).

Although 51% of the public school special education directors stated that they were informed when their students entered a correctional facility, 14 volunteered remarks from special education directors indicated that the directors were not certain that they were always informed. These directors acknowledged the possibility that some students might be "lost" to the public school system due to inconsistent information exchange. A total of 27% reported that they were informed of incarceration by either the grapevine, a parent, or other sources (i.e., teacher, social worker). The highest percentage, 46%, were informed by the judicial system, while only 37% were informed by the correctional facility. This information directly contrasts with that of the correctional education directors, of whom 67% stated that they always or usually report incarceration to the public school system.

Other issues that yielded contrasting results included data obtained from a series of questions about transfer of both school and confidential records. Approximately 73% (range of 68%-78%) of both public school special education and correctional education directors indicated that they always or usually requested records. Yet when the receiving public or correctional school directors were asked if the other system requested their records, only 45% (range of 35%-55%) indicated that their records had been requested. Six (23%) correctional education directors and 17 (19%) public school special education directors stated that they sent their records automatically.

Of the public school special education directors, 40% reported that they received requested records, regardless of the type of record, always or usually within 1 to 2 weeks. In contrast, only 29% of the correctional education directors replied that they received records within that time frame.


Results of this survey confirm the existence of problems with information exchange between public schools and correctional facilities for handicapped juvenile offenders. Less than half the correctional education directors surveyed were informed of handicapping conditions, and only half of the public school respondents were always or usually informed of incarceration. This lack of knowledge presents another obstacle for youth transitioning into correctional facilities and reintegrating back into public schools. Information exchange about incarceration is a fundamental step in planning a comprehensive program for transition. A number of public school respondents stated that they felt there were students who "fell through the cracks" between the two systems. Comments included: "We hear by chance, from the probation officer, in passing"; "We usually find out through other kids"; "We really don't know where they're going." These comments reflect that, at least in some systems, information exchange, which would enhance service delivery during incarceration and provide effective integration back into the public schools, is blocked.

Questions related to the actual transfer of records revealed that the correctional education system always or usually received the requested records within 2 weeks only about one-third of the time. Given that the average length of stay in juvenile correctional facilities in only about 6 months, and that many correctional facilities do not have adequate means for identifying handicapping conditions, expeditious transfer of records in crucial (Dodaro & Salvemini, 1985). The fact that the public education system always or usually receives records within 2 weeks less than half of the time may lessen the likelihood of effective reintegration of juvenile offenders back into the public school system.

Some survey findings indicated a disparity between the responses of the sending system and the receiving system concerning notification of incarceration and requests for records. This disparity may reflect the fact that respondents did not have first-hand knowledge of this information or may indicate the existence of a breakdown in communication between the two systems. Communication breakdowns are often cited as a major concern by both practitioners and researchers in the field of correctional special education (Dodaro & Salvemini, 1985; Richey & Willis, 1982; Smith & Hockenberry, 1980; Smith et al., 1983). Although the survey results did not take into account the specific flow of information between correctional facilities and the public school systems that feed into these facilities, the magnitude of the disparity of responses given by the two systems does imply the existence of problems related to information exchange.

Approximately one-fourth of the respondents who did not have a liaison felt that there was no need for such a position. Frequently mentioned rationales included small size of the system, budgetary constraints, and low incidence of handicapping conditions. Follow-up discussions with respondents indicated that established informal communication networks in smaller systems seemed to provide a framework for effective transition. These networks, however, were often dependent on the interpersonal relationships established by key agency staff. This method of communication can lead to inconsistent information exchange and resulting underestimated incidences of handicapped, adjudicated youth.

It should be noted that the survey definition of liaison was limited to those individuals who spend at least 75% of their time coordinating student services between the correctional education and public education systems. A broader definition of the role and responsibilities of a liaison may yield additional information about the need for this position.


A number of implications for improved trasitional service delivery can be drawn from the survey data. The development of specific written procedures and specific criteria for information transfer between juvenile corrections and the public schools is essential. These procedures should include guidelines for notification of incarceration, identification of handicapping conditions, and notification of release. The designation of a liaison with responsibility for coordinating exchange of records such as IEPs, test results, and educational histories with the two systems may facilitate a more timely delivery of appropriate educational services. Effective use of liaisons may be improved if role responsibilities and supervisory controls are clearly defined.

As youth travel trhough the juvenile justice maze, many will become lost in the system and receive inadequate or inappropriate services. It is crucial that these youth be provided the full continuum of educational services during incarceration to ensure successful participation in society upon return to family, school, and community. The mandates of Public Law 94-142 emphasize the importance of appropriate service delivery to handicapped youth. The removal of handicapped, adjudicated youth from society does not justify the removal of their right to free and appropriate education. These youth require intensive educational services during incarceration and strong transitional support during the reintegration process. The coordination of transitional services by a liaison may assist handicapped, adjudicated youth in accessing the variety of human service agencies with which they must interact. Such coordination may optimally help bridge a longstanding service delivery gap.


Dodaro, G. L., & Salvemini, A. N. (1985). Implementation of P. L. 94-142 as it relates to handicapped delinquents in the District of Columbia. Washington, DC: U.S. General Accounting Office.

Dunivant, N. (1982). The relationship between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency: Brief summary of research findings. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for States Courts.

Horvarth, G. J. (1982, June). Issues in correctional education: A conundrum of conflict. Paper presented at the Correctional Education Conference, Baltimore, MD.

Morgan, D. I. (1973). Prevalence and types of handicapping conditions found in juvenile correctional institutions: A national survey. Journal of Special Education, 13, 283-295.

Peterson, J., Friend, D., & Marin, A. (1976). Correctional education: A forgotten human service, Denver, CO: Education Commission of the United States.

Richey, D. D. & Willis, T. W. (1982). Improving education for handicapped, incarcerated youth: Priority setting and problem identification by front-line staff during in-service training. Journal of Correctional Education, 32, 27-30.

Rutherford, R. B., Nelson, C. M., & Wolford, B. I. (1985). Special education in the most restrictive environment: Correctional/special education. Journal of Special Education, 19, 59-71.

Schuster, R., & Guggenheim, P. D. (1982). Investigation of the intellectual capabilities of juvenile offenders. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 27, 393-400.

Smith, B. J., & Hockenberry, C. M. (1980). Implementing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, P. L. 94-142, youth corrections facilities: Selected issues. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 197 548).

Smith, B. J., Ramirez, B. A., & Rutherford, R. B. (1983). Special education in youth correctional facilities. The Journal of Correctional Education, 34, 108-112.

U.S. Department of Education Statistics. (1984). As reported by state agencies under Public Law 94-142 and Public Law 89-313.

KATHLEEN A. LEWIS is a Research Assistant in the Department of Special Education, GAIL M. SCHWARTZ is the Project Director of the Adjudicated Youth/Special Education Program, and ROBERT N. IANACONE is the Coordinator of the Supportive Training, Transition and Education Programs, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
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Author:Lewis, Kathleen A.; Schwartz, Gail M.; Ianacone, Robert N.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Sep 1, 1988
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