Researchers and advocates point to studies, including two finished recently, that find higher percentages of children with learning disabilities in the juvenile justice system than in the general population. They say that if schools were doing what federal law requires in terms of providing individual attention, they would not fall behind their peers and develop the frustration and anger that can lead kids to act up and create problems.
Once kids with learning disabilities find themselves in the juvenile justice system, there is little chance for them to get their education back on track and get started out in life on the right foot, researchers and advocates say.
"The schools end up getting rid of kids, discarding them," said Dan Mears, a senior research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute and co-author of the study "Addressing the Needs of Youth with Disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System: The Status of Evidence-Based Research."
"Then there are two places they can go: into the justice system or out on the streets," he said.
‘They Basically Unravel’
According to Mears' study, children and youth with disabilities have become increasingly overrepresented in the juvenile justice system as a direct result of discipline problems caused by their disability.
The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice has found the same thing, as have the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and Advocates for Children.
"Once they can't read and can't do math at the level of their classmates, when they do math and read at a second-grade level and they're 15 or 16, they basically unravel," said Elisa Hyman, director of Advocates for Children.
An educator who runs the largest special education program in Vermont said there are other factors that contribute to children acting up, but that frustration with a lack of academic progress play a role.
"I think it's reasonable to imagine that if an adolescent has fallen behind, they'd get to a point where they might not buy into the whole education thing as a positive thing for them," said Richard Smith, director of special education at the Orleans Essex North Supervisory Union.
A Dead End?
Ira Hughes, a 20-year-old New York City man, is another case of what can go wrong, but also of how it can be made right. He said he wanted to stay in school, but when he realized he was going to be in 10th grade for a third time, it stopped making sense, and he dropped out two years ago.
Hughes has severe dyslexia that the school he was attending seemed unable to deal with, he said. He had not had a teacher working with him one-on-one since junior high school, which was when his disability was finally diagnosed, and felt he had not made academic progress since then.
"It was like a dead-end thing," he said. "I felt like if it was three years, it could be four years or five years. It wouldn't matter."
So he dropped out, rather than beat his head against a wall that wasn't moving.
Hughes, who works as a security guard, is currently attending a GED program where he works one-on-one with a teacher who is helping him overcome his dyslexia, and he is on course to get his diploma.
The classes are being paid for by the New York City Department of Education, he said, "Kind of like, 'We owe you.' "