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Students in Juvenile Detention Finally Being Heard, But Not Seen

Recreation space at the Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx, Nov. 12, 2020.
Recreation space at the Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx, Nov. 12, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Nearly a year into the pandemic, children in city juvenile detention centers are finally having their voices heard by teachers during remote learning — but full video capabilities are still elusive, according to city child welfare and education officials.

In November, reporting by THE CITY showed that kids could not be seen or heard by teachers in remote classes while in juvenile lockup. At the time, both the city Department of Education and the Administration for Children’s Services cited security and confidentiality concerns, while teachers and education advocates worried that vulnerable youth were being shortchanged.

A month later, education officials said they were looking into programs that would allow secure voice communication for pupils behind bars, as well as expanded tutoring services.

Now, with new voice capabilities built into online learning, teachers can initiate audio calls with individual students while teaching live lessons. But children still lack the ability to speak to each other or the teacher together as a virtual class, according to ACS.

And there’s limited video — students can see the teacher, but the teacher can’t see the students.

On Friday, the City Council’s general welfare committee is holding an oversight hearing to explore these and other COVID-19-related issues affecting the juvenile justice system.

The city Department of Education is committed to supporting students in detention, Nathaniel Styer, a DOE spokesman said in a statement. Both he and ACS officials touted a 96% attendance rate by kids taking classes behind bars.

“We’re currently working with DOE on a plan that would add video capability while protecting the confidentiality of these youth,” said Marisa Kaufman, an ACS spokesperson.

Neither agency replied to questions from THE CITY regarding homework completion rates.

“We will continue to improve our ability to provide remote instruction and we look forward to fully reopening in-person learning for our students in detention when it is safe to do so,” Styer wrote.

Pandemic Problems

When COVID-19 first hit New York, parents and advocates rallied to get kids in detention released, as THE CITY revealed that staffers had tested positive for the virus.

The Legal Aid Society quickly filed a lawsuit to get children back home to their families — part of a larger push for the release of vulnerable prisoners of all ages. Eventually, many youth began to be freed — mostly those locked up for nonviolent crimes.

The number of detained youth in the city’s seven nonsecure centers has since remained relatively low. As of Thursday, 16 children were being held according to the state Office of Children and Family Services website.

But the number young people being held on more serious charges in the city’s two secure juvenile facilities — Crossroads in Brooklyn and Horizon in The Bronx — have climbed from 74 in March to 106 on Thursday as their cases move slowly through virtual courts.

For those still stuck behind bars, programming at the facilities has been limited since the pandemic began, with in-person visits with family being replaced by virtual sessions.

In a recent issue of The Unionist, SSEU Local 371’s newsletter, an article touted accelerated hiring at Crossroads and Horizon after staff complained of being “stretched incredibly thin” because of injuries and illness.

All of these issues could be helped by distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, noted Nancy Ginsburg, the director of the adolescent intervention and diversion project at The Legal Aid Society.

Ginsburg credited the DOE and ACS with working to improve circumstances for both staff and youth during a “particularly challenging time”

“I would love to see people really going out and getting vaccinated, particularly the adults who work in the building,” said Ginsburg.

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