Many students leaving incarceration do not have access to specialized transitional educational placements and must reenter the school environment immediately after their release. It is unfortunate for a student to have to attempt this difficult reentry without help. Many steps can be taken to avoid this.16
Curriculum coordination. It is extremely difficult for any student to enter classes during the middle of a semester and to succeed academically without prior exposure to the curriculum. Therefore, it is worth the time and effort to make certain that the curriculum within the institution is individualized to parallel that of the student's mainstream school while complying with the State's educational guidelines for graduation.
Prerelease information sharing. Placement considerations and discussions with the receiving school should begin long before the student is scheduled to depart from the facility. Juvenile justice system officials should share information with the school about the student's therapeutic service needs, academic functioning and achievement, and future educational needs and goals and about aftercare conditions that the school will be asked to assist in monitoring (e.g., compliance with school attendance, behavior, or therapy attendance requirements). In addition, juvenile justice system officials should indicate how they will assist the school to help monitor and enforce attendance, achievement, and behavioral standards.
Prerelease visit. A key factor in easing the reintegration process is a prerelease visit by the student (accompanied by the appropriate juvenile justice system official) to the receiving school. The student should be transported to the school and meet with the principal and other staff members. Classroom placement and curricular needs can be discussed at this time. (An effective approach matches the student's learning style with the receiving teachers' instructional styles. The visit is also an excellent time to introduce the student to the selected teachers.)
This advance visit establishes first impressions for both the student and the school personnel and can help both parties become more comfortable with each other. A well-planned visit can allay school personnel's fears associated with a juvenile offender reentering the mainstream school, especially if the youth arrives at the meeting well-groomed and behaves in a polite and nonthreatening manner.
Admission interview. The admission interview, conducted with reentering students and their parents, is an essential part of the reintegration process. The interview can elicit valuable information about the student: likes and dislikes; self-perception; student- and parent-identified academic and vocational goals; relationships with friends, family, and authority figures; past experience with the legal system; adjudication status; mental health concerns and treatment; and individual strengths and weaknesses. The interviewer(s) can also observe who "controls" the familya parent or the juvenile. Evidence that the juvenile has control indicates a problem in the family. Steps can then be taken to provide family counseling. The admission interview also provides an opportunity for school staff to discuss relevant policies and rules with reentering students and their parents (see below).
Transitional counseling. An individual who has been released from a residential setting or an incarceration facility will require ongoing contact with staff from the discharging facility for followup after placement. Juvenile offenders often experience feelings of abandonment in new settings. A phone call or a visit from a staff counselor during the first 2 weeks of the transition can ease the student's discomfort until rapport with new staff and peers has developed. Institutional staff should maintain contact with the youth for up to 6 months after release, helping the youth to transfer positive skills and behaviors acquired in the old institutional setting to the new community setting.
Policies and rules. Any "zero-tolerance" policies governing day-to-day administration of discipline in the school must be explained to parents and students during an admission interview. Such policies give both youth and their parents important information on accepted behaviors and disciplinary measures while removing discretionary options from school administrators and law enforcement, thus reducing the possibility of unfairness in administering discipline. For instance, a policy might state that disciplinary measures for acts of violence such as fights, threats, or bullying will be met with consistent, swift consequences for each individual and that bringing a weapon to the school campus will result in criminal charges and a 1-year expulsion. This firearms policy is consistent with the Federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994.17 Other zero-tolerance policies may address codes of conduct, gang affiliation, dress code violations, and contraband.
An effective way to communicate school policies is through a student/parent handbook. During the admission interview, staff members can divide the topics covered in the handbook and discuss the topics. For example, the assistant principal can clarify behavior rules and the dress code, while the homeroom teacher or counselor can explain academic performance expectations. The combination of both a written and verbal explanation of school policies can ensure understanding and encourage compliance.
Students and parents should be required to sign a statement acknowledging that they have received a copy of the handbook and agreeing that they are accountable for following school policies. This signed statement can be useful if students or parents should ever deny knowledge of policies in the future. The school district's attorney should review and approve the exact wording of the acknowledgment statement.
Violence elimination contract. A strategy similar to the acknowledgment statement is the use of a violence elimination contract that emphasizes the zero-tolerance policy for weapons and violence. The school principal guides the student and parents through the contract, which clearly explains that weapons and violence will not be tolerated. The principal, student, and parents all enter into the contract, which also makes clear the roles of each and establishes a team process for working with the student. The student becomes aware of the united efforts of school officials, parents, the courts, and police officers to handle disruptions on the school campus. The violence elimination contract may also call for a mandatory meeting with school officials to work out a resolution if the student is involved in a conflict or violent situation on campus.
Another benefit of the violence elimination contract is parental accountability. Parents are asked to regularly observe their children and help ensure that contraband or weapons are not brought to school. Parents are also reminded of their responsibility to teach their children about gun safety and are asked to keep any weapons they own under lock and key. Finally, students and parents agree to attend conflict resolution sessions with trained school mediation personnel if the student is involved in a violent situation. Attendance at these sessions can teach parents how to use the same skills with their children at home that professionals use at school.
Plans and curriculum. An important step in the enrollment and reintegration process is the establishment of academic, behavioral, and vocational goals and objectives. If the student requires special education, an Individual Education Plan must be completed. If the student does not qualify for special education services, a similar plan, called an Individual Service Plan, can be prepared. Both plans specify academic and behavioral goals and objectives for the student. The use of these documents, which provide a foundation for programming and evaluation, is essential in developing a student's map for success.
The course of study offered juvenile offenders must address the needs of the student and the needs of the community. Problem-solving skills, anger control, social skills, role identification, goal-setting skills, and conflict resolution are important concepts to include in their educational programming, along with the traditional curriculum of reading, writing, and mathematics. Vocational skills should also be considered, depending on the age of the student.