CHICAGO — A new report released by a watchdog group said some youths felt “fear,” “hopelessness,” and “like dogs” when physical coercion was used at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center as the group called for the detention center and an alternative high school be closed.
Equip for Equality, a nonprofit organization and the federally appointed disability watchdog in Illinois, released the 96-page report after spending 1,000 hours in juvenile detention and school interviewing students, staff and administrators from November 2021 to January this year.
Equip for Equality’s lead attorney, Rachel Shapiro, told the Tribune on Friday that the most “startling thing” she learned while talking to youths at the detention center was the use of physical force.
“As it was described, two students said they felt like dogs, and just the hopelessness and the fear these students expressed when we interviewed them and how mundane it seemed because they basically said they’ve witnessed coercive action where people got hurt …that part of the report appeals to me the most because it’s so sad to imagine being treated that way,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro said other recommendations in the report that should be considered are better oversight and coordination between agencies that have the ability to monitor the detention center and proper and detailed documentation of incidents occurring at the detention center and school.
The report, titled “Youth in Crisis: Stop Civil Rights Violations against Vulnerable Students with Disabilities at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center and Its Alternative School,” contains findings and detailed recommendations for improvements to be made at the detention center and Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative High School passed the group’s eventual demand for complete closure.
The demand then includes moving the youth into “smaller, community-based settings,” the report said.
“Illinois needs to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, and redesigning and reshaping its system of temporary juvenile detention centers is critical to achieving this goal,” Zena Naiditch, president and CEO of Equip for Equality, said in a statement.
“An insurmountable barrier to modernizing and reforming the state juvenile detention system is that there are too many local and state judicial entities and executive agencies involved in overseeing the system,” Naiditch said in the statement. “As a result, the accountability system is ineffective and it is illusory to determine who is accountable.”
Key findings in the report include routine civil rights violations of students with disabilities in prison and unjust and excessive use of physical restraints and seclusion, often as punishment, in defiance of state law, the report said.
“By not following the law and/or their own policies and relying heavily on the use of physical restraints, the JTDC is adding even more trauma and despair to these vulnerable youth,” said Olga Pribyl, Vice President of Equip for Equality’s Special Education Rights Clinic. in the statement.
“I am hopeful that our leaders are taking the necessary steps to transition to a positive community model,” Pribyl said in the statement.
Other findings in the report include that the prison’s special education system is “definitely inadequate” with 30 to 50% of young people entering as special education learners, as well as issues emerging in 15 other local juvenile detention centers with calls to local government officials to have these places properly monitored.
A statement from Chicago Public Schools on the report said the district is “committed to providing quality education and educational experiences to all students in every school, including our alternative schools.”
The district said in the statement that there are “concerns about the validity and reliability of the data” in the report, and the district has provided feedback to the nonprofit on the findings and recommendations and “will continue to work with Equip for Equality to ensuring that students receive the services they need and that accurate information is shared with the public.”
The alternative school is “extremely unique,” the district said, as about 80% of the total student population is enrolled for less than 45 days, while some students are only at the school for two days.
“Our top priority remains supporting students through all available resources, including quality instruction, social-emotional support and community partnerships,” CPS said in the statement.
“The Equip for Equality report contains several inaccurate statements that do not adequately reflect the significant efforts our district is making to support students in our alternative schools, such as increasing the number of special education teachers who can provide services, improving credit and graduation rates and expanding community partnerships, such as the one with Kennedy-King College, that allow students to earn college credits during high school.
As a district, we work with students, schools, families and external stakeholders like EFE to create and implement student-centered systems that break down barriers and give students the tools they need to stay on track and engaged in school. ”
Meanwhile, Toni Preckwinkle, chairman of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, called the report “disturbing” in a statement sent Friday night.
“We have received the disturbing report and will review it thoroughly in the coming days,” Preckwinkle said in the statement.
“We appreciate Equip for Equality and the Special Education Rights Clinic for their attention to education issues at the Center for Temporary Juvenile Detention (JTDC). While my authority does not extend to detention center practices, I share the concerns raised by this report, the JTDC Advisory Board, and the 2022 Blue Ribbon Commission Report convened by the Chief Justice’s Office. ”
“Harmful conditions and practices that hurt our youth need to be addressed urgently. My goal is to work with other stakeholders to reinvent juvenile detention, centering on best practices and the unique needs of children,” she said in the statement.
“This work should allow Cook County to move to a place where structures like the JTDC are obsolete. Cook County is committed to evidence-based, people-centered juvenile justice reform and investments that prevent initial and repeat involvement in the system,” Preckwinkle said in the statement.
“We need to do better through children at risk, including those who get involved in the justice system. It is imperative that we work together to ensure the safety, care and effective rehabilitation of these children.”