LOS ANGELES (AP) — Education at Los Angeles County’s biggest juvenile detention center will be overhauled by a team of national experts under the terms of a legal settlement announced Thursday.
The county Probation Department and Office of Education have agreed to completely revamp the high school at the county’s Challenger Memorial Youth Center, which comprises six camps in Lancaster, said the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Calling Challenger a “hellish place” and the “black hole of Los Angeles’ juvenile justice system,” ACLU Chief Counsel Mark Rosenbaum said the settlement will boost the youthful inmates’ chances at rehabilitation over recidivism.
“It promises nothing less than a complete makeover of Challenger from a factory of despair to a school for hope,” he said.
The ACLU sued the county agencies in U.S. District Court in January after a months-long investigation into the 650-student Christa McAuliffe High School.
The lawsuit said worksheets were pushed under cell doors in lieu of classroom instruction and illiterate inmates were given diplomas.
Administrators and teachers directed students to leave classrooms to paint buildings and remove weeds, then billed the state for those instructional days, denied services to students asking for help or to use the bathroom, and systematically denied students access to appropriate instruction and the required minimum school day, the suit said.
Under terms of the settlement, the reform will encompass 13 areas, including special education, literacy services with a lending library, a career and technical education program, and new disciplinary and solitary confinement policies to ensure those youths continue their education while under punishment.
The settlement also calls for intensive reading services for former detainees to help them regain literacy skills lost while they were at Challenger.
Chief Probation Officer Donald Blevins, who took over the department after the suit was filed, said the allegations in the lawsuit spurred him to visit Challenger soon after taking the job.
“I did find the school program to be lacking in a lot of areas,” he said.
He said he has already hired an education director to oversee the implementation of recommendations contained in a report by experts in juvenile corrections education, and is working with a local community college to come on campus to offer career programs.
“We want kids to leave better than when they got there,” he said. “This (settlement) is a motivator to get things moving faster.”
Interim county education superintendent Jon Gundry acknowledged Challenger needs “critical systemic reforms.” The effort has started with the hiring of a new administrative team at the school and a new emphasis on literacy, more reading and math interventions and vocational education, he said.
“This reform is no simple task, but business as usual is not an option,” Gundry said in a statement. “I am committed to overseeing transformative change at the McAuliffe School.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has been a vocal critic of the Probation Department, lauded the reforms outlined in the settlement, but voiced some skepticism about their implementation.
“The question will be whether the Probation Department is able to stick to the course set by this settlement and reach its destination,” he said. “It will be a difficult path for a department with so many entrenched problems.”
The settlement also calls for the creation of a Challenger Reform Task Force to monitor the reforms.
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