Close to 70 percent of youth involved in the juvenile justice system have a special education need. However, these young people are routinely denied the educational services to which they are legally entitled. While federal legislation—specifically, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act—currently exists to address these issues, many juvenile justice facilities lack awareness of the law and its implications.
In the first year of her Emerging Leader Fellowship, Ashley Sawyer worked with the Education Law Center to improve access to special education services for youth in juvenile justice facilities. She developed and provided training for more than 50 directors and staff from juvenile facilities across the state, educated families and communities about their rights, and met with public defenders and state education and human service agencies to advocate for policy improvements.
In the second year of Ashley’s Fellowship, her project scope broadened to focus on strengthening education for all young people involved—or at risk of becoming involved—in the juvenile justice system. She connected with national experts to identify a comprehensive tool to assess the quality of educational services provided within Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice facilities. She also worked to change the Philadelphia School District’s disciplinary policies and dress code that push students out of their neighborhood schools. Lastly, she assisted the Education Law Center in their successful efforts to end suspensions for kindergarten students.