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Schools send teacher to help jailed teens

A lawsuit is filed, and the Hillsborough school district dedicates a teacher to work at the Orient Road Jail.

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


TAMPA -- A full-time schoolteacher will report for her first day of duty next week at the Orient Road Jail, Hillsborough County's response to complaints that it is not providing an adequate education for juveniles held in jail as adults.

Hillsborough was one of 20 school boards named Monday in a lawsuit filed by the Florida Justice Institute in Alachua Circuit Court. The institute claims the counties are violating the teens' right to a quality education under the state Constitution and wants a judge to order the school boards to improve the instruction jailed juveniles receive.

The other school boards named in the suit are Alachua, Bay, DeSoto, Charlotte, Collier, Escambia, Gadsden, Hamilton, Indian River, Lee, Levy, Marion, Monroe, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, St. Lucie, Sumter, Taylor and Volusia.

JoNel Newman, a lawyer with the institute, said that up to 1,000 juveniles a day are jailed in Florida as adults and that many were good students who planned to attend college before their arrests. Although some are charged with murder or rape, she said, the majority are charged with crimes such as auto theft, burglary and trespassing.

She said it is important that jailed juveniles continue their education because most will one day be released and a quality education is "the single most important factor in reducing the likelihood that a juvenile will commit more crimes."

The Florida School Boards Association did not immediately return a call for comment.

Mary Ellen Elia, who oversees non-traditional programs for Hillsborough schools, said an average of 50 juveniles each day await trial in Hillsborough jails. In the past, those juveniles were provided access only to classes in which they could earn a GED.

Now, those students will be able to take classes that will allow them to earn credit toward a traditional high school diploma.

"We are expanding the educational opportunities for these students," Elia said. "We really feel that it is a great option for our students who are in jail to stay in the mainstream."

Elia said students will be evaluated as they enter the jail and an educational plan will be developed for them.

Elia said the district had been talking with the Florida Justice Institute for several months about the quality of education for jailed teenagers. It was in response to those discussions, along with the growing number of jailed teenagers, she said, that the district decided to hire the new teacher.

"They were aware that we were developing a program," Elia said.

The district was surprised to see itself named in the institute's lawsuit. Five counties were named as defendants -- Alachua, Lee, Marion, St. Lucie and Escambia. The other 15, including Hillsborough, were named as providing inadequate educational services in county jails.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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