Report by watchdog group alleges ‘inhumane,’ ‘unjust’ treatment of youth at Cook County Juvenile Detention Center
CHICAGO — A new report released by a watchdog group said some youths felt “fear,” “hopelessness,” and “like dogs” when physical restraint was used at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center as the group called for the detention center and an alternative high school to be shut down.
Equip for Equality, a nonprofit and the federally appointed watchdog for people with disabilities in Illinois, released the 96-page report after spending 1,000 hours at the juvenile detention center and school interviewing students, staff and administrators from November 2021 to January of this year.
Equip for Equality Managing Attorney Rachel Shapiro told the Tribune on Friday the most “eye-opening thing” she learned when talking to youth at the detention center, was the use of physical restraint.
“The way it was described, two students said it made them feel like dogs, and just the hopelessness and the fear that these students were expressing when we would interview them and just how commonplace it seemed to be because they were matter of fact in saying that they’ve witnessed restraints in which people were injured ... that part of the report speaks to me the most because it is so sad to imagine being treated that way,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro said other recommendations in the report needing to be considered are better oversight and coordination between agencies that have the ability to audit the detention center and proper and detailed documentation of any incidents that occur in 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,” includes findings and detailed recommendations for improvements needing to be made at the detention center and Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative High School beyond the group’s ultimate ask of complete shutdown.
The ask then includes moving the youth to “smaller, community-based settings,” according to the report.
“Illinois needs to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and redesigning and reforming the system of juvenile temporary detention centers is critical to reaching this goal,” Zena Naiditch, President and CEO of Equip for Equality, said in a statement.
“An insurmountable barrier to modernizing and reforming the state system for youth in custody is that there are too many local and state judicial entities and executive agencies that play a role in the oversight of the system,” Naiditch said in the statement. “As a result, the accountability system is ineffective and determining who is responsible is illusive.”
Key findings in the report include routine violations of students with disabilities’ civil rights at the jail and unjust and excessive use of physical restraints and seclusion, often as punishment, with disregard of state law, according to the report.
“By not following the law and or their own policies and relying heavily on the use of physical restraints, the JTDC is causing these vulnerable youth even more trauma and despair,” Olga Pribyl, vice president of Equip for Equality’s Special Education Rights Clinic, said in the statement.
“I’m hopeful that our leaders take the necessary steps to transition to a positive community-based model,” Pribyl said in the statement.
Other findings included in the report are the special education system at the jail being “grossly inadequate” as 30 to 50% of youth enter as special education students as well as problems occurring at 15 other local juvenile detention centers with calls on local government officials to have these places be monitored in-depth.
A statement from Chicago Public Schools about the report said the district is “committed to providing high-quality instruction and educational experiences to all students in every school, including our alternative schools.”
The district said in the statement 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 ensure 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 as little as two days.
“Our top priority continues to be supporting students through every resource available, including high-quality instruction, social-emotional supports, and community partnerships,” CPS said in the statement.
“Equip for Equality’s report contains several inaccurate statements which fail to sufficiently capture the great efforts our district is making to support students in our alternative schools, like increasing the number of special education teachers who can provide services, improving student credit attainment and graduation rates, and expanding community partnerships, like the one with Kennedy-King College, that allows students to earn college credit 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 eliminate barriers and give students the tools they need to stay on track and engaged in school.”
Meanwhile, Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, called the report “troubling” in a statement sent Friday night.
“We have received the troubling report and will be reviewing 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 issues with education in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). Though my authority does not extend to the practices of the detention center, I share in the concerns raised by this report, the JTDC Advisory Board, and the 2022 report by the Blue Ribbon Committee convened by the Office of the Chief Judge.”
“Harmful conditions and practices that hurt our young people must be urgently addressed. It is my goal to join in with other stakeholders to reimagine juvenile detention, centering best practices and the unique needs of children,” she said in the statement.
“This work should allow Cook County to get to a place where structures like the JTDC are obsolete. Cook County is committed to evidence-based, human-centered juvenile justice reform and investment that prevents initial and repeat involvement with the system,” Preckwinkle said in the statement.
“We must do better by at-risk children including those who become involved in the legal system. It is imperative that we work together to ensure the safety, care and effective rehabilitation of these children.”