Teens locked up at the county jail in Kent receive an hour of schooling, at most, with no allowance made for those eligible for special-education services. Last week, a team of lawyers cried foul on that, among other issues, citing state and federal law.
During months spent in solitary confinement at Kent’s Regional Justice Center earlier this year, four teens got no schooling other than a packet of work sheets slid under their cell doors, though none had been found guilty of a crime and all were entitled to individual learning plans, according to a legal complaint filed on their behalf last week.
The teens are part of a class action suit that claims King County is ignoring state laws mandating an adequate education for all kids, even those in jail. The threatened action also challenges the county’s practice of putting teenagers in solitary confinement in the first place.
Each of the four youths at the heart of the complaint, all under 18, had been housed in an isolation cell as punishment for defying officers while awaiting resolution of their cases. Often, they remained alone for 72 hours at a time, other than 10 minutes of daily conversation with a teacher who collected their work packets but never returned them with comments, suggestions or any other effort to advance instruction, according to Nick Straley, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services, who filed the complaint.
“By holding children in isolation for long periods of time and refusing to provide them an adequate education, King County has violated and continues to violate the rights of all children” held at the county facility, says the complaint, citing federal and state laws.
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Sonya Stokes, the mother of a young man facing trial on robbery charges, said she visited three or four times a week during the seven months her son waited for his case to be processed. He described “schooling at a sixth-grade level — basically, a joke,” Stokes said.
The teen, who would have been a senior this year at Seattle’s Ingraham High School, was diagnosed with ADHD in the fourth grade and, as a special-education student, has had an individualized education plan, as required by federal law. He never enjoyed school, Stokes said, but managed to squeak by and find a few teachers with whom he could connect.
“So for him to be complaining about how easy it is, it had to be pretty bad,” she said.
Every youth at the jail — even those not in isolation — experiences a similar lack of instruction, according to Straley. On any given day, about 15-20 teens facing adult charges sit there, awaiting trial. Many will remain for months. State law entitles each to a minimum 30 minutes of instruction weekly, provided by the Kent School District.
In practice, they get more than that — about an hour a day. But as with kids in solitary, the general-population teens receive a uniform packet of work sheets, regardless of their grade level, Straley said.
Gabe Morales, who worked at the justice center for more than a decade until leaving in January, agreed with Straley’s description.
“It was a mess,” said Morales of youth programming at the jail. The justice center “was never set up for kids, and they should not be there.”
Kent’s superintendent of schools, Calvin Watts, declined to comment, saying only that the district remains “committed to providing continued quality services” as required by law.
By way of comparison, minors charged as adults in Georgia get full-time daily instruction, according to Travis Andrews, a policy analyst with Columbia Legal Services, who recently worked on youth incarceration in that state.
“It’s very difficult for me to wrap my mind around juveniles literally being slid a packet under the door, with no explanation or follow-up,” Andrews said.