The pandemic has had devastating effects on students incarcerated on Rikers Island. NDS Education Attorney Ariana Brill testified before New York City Council about what our clients are experiencing and offers recommendations to the city about how to fulfill its obligation to provide education to these students.
Access to Education at Rikers
For much of the past year, students at East River Academy (ERA) on Rikers Island have had—at best—extremely limited access to educational services. This is deeply concerning not only because students have a legal right to attend school1, but also because ERA students are often in the greatest need of educational services. Students who are incarcerated are disproportionately students with disabilities. Our clients are often over-age and under-credited and have frequently experienced exclusionary school discipline, discriminatory treatment, or school pushout prior to incarceration. Because young people at Rikers are disproportionately Black and Latinx, the lack of services overwhelmingly prevents students of color from accessing an education during a critical time in their lives.
We recognize that the DOE has made significant efforts to respond to challenging conditions and meet the needs of students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the past year has deepened existing inequality in New York City schools. Although young people across the city are struggling to access an education, some of the most basic supports available to students in the community are completely inaccessible to students in jail. Our clients’ participation in school can be a positive experience and a high school diploma can create new opportunities—but these benefits will not be realized absent significant changes to current programming.
Access to Packets and Tablets
Throughout the pandemic, the lack of access to education has made it very difficult for students to make any progress toward High School Equivalency or high school diplomas. Non-incarcerated students are entitled to free devices and can receive synchronous (“live”) instruction. In contrast, many ERA students only have access to paper packets. The students who are provided with tablets can “chat” with their teachers but will not receive an immediate response, cannot engage in any real-time communication, and do not receive synchronous instruction. Even when tablets are theoretically available to certain housing units, the devices may be confiscated for “security issues” for weeks at a time and replaced with paper packets. There is also a telephone hotline, which allows students to call teachers and counselors from unit phones at designated times. However, because teachers cannot make calls to students on the unit phones, students who are unaware of the hotline or hesitant to make calls are denied the opportunity to communicate with DOE staff. It is unreasonable to place all responsibility on students to initiate communication with teachers. It is also difficult to imagine how any student—even one who is highly motivated—can advance in school without regular communication with teachers and counselors.
The lack of access to an education is especially harmful because it prevents students from making progress during a critical time—particularly if they are working toward a Regents diploma and must fulfill their graduation requirements by the end of the school year in which they turn 21. In addition, young people who might otherwise be interested in pursuing a diploma may be discouraged from enrolling because of the daunting prospect of navigating school with minimal supports. We have witnessed young people who were actively engaged in school prior to the pandemic or eager to re-engage in school lose motivation. After going many months without receiving any contact from teachers or staff; attempting to enroll in school multiple times without being provided services; or being forced to complete paper packets without any instruction—students understandably feel discouraged and disengaged.
Special Education Services
Students with disabilities have not received all of the services and supports to which they are entitled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While many students in the community have also gone without mandated special education services, non-incarcerated students can receive services by video or phone, as well as schedule regular sessions with providers. In contrast, students at Rikers have been limited to initiating calls to DOE staff using the unit phones—and it is unclear which services, if any, are offered during these calls. Some of our clients with disabilities have struggled to even begin engaging in remote work; they have had difficulty understanding how to use devices or complete work without scaffolding or individualized support.
Return of In-Person Instruction
East River Academy staff returned to Rikers Island in April 2021. The return of ERA staff is a positive development, as their dedicated instruction and guidance can help students succeed. However, it is not clear that DOC is actually transporting students to in-person school each day, how many students are entirely excluded from in-person learning, how many hours of instruction each student receives per week, how services are provided if the school is temporarily closed, and which barriers will persist as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout Rikers.
The DOE must release data about student attendance and engagement at East River Academy, including information about the number of students have accrued credits or made progress toward a HSE diploma; the number of students who are receiving education through different modalities (in-person learning, tablets, paper packets); the number of students who are utilizing the telephone hotline and the length of these phone calls; the total number of students eligible to participate in school; and which mandated special education services have not been provided since March 2020. At the April 21 hearing, the DOE testified that attendance information from East River Academy was not available from March 2020 – April 2021. However, information about the completion of paper packets, as well as how many students actually used and completed work on tablets, is crucial to understanding the extent to which these students have been deprived of an education. Additionally, more information is needed about how often students’ tablets are confiscated by DOC and replaced with paper packets.
Improved Access to Educational Services
If students at ERA are to get the same, basic access to education as students in the community, young people must be enrolled in school immediately upon their request. They must be offered in-person instruction. If in-person instruction is not available five days per week, students must be offered synchronous instruction and the ability to communicate in real-time with their teachers, counselors, and other support staff. Students must receive all of the mandated special education services that they are entitled to under federal law. Finally, DOC should not impede the educational progress of students; DOC should transport students to school each school day and should avoid confiscating tablets. Because the DOC testified at the April 21 hearing that, 13 months into the pandemic, “connectivity issues” were a major reason that tablets were not offered to all students—any technological barriers preventing the distribution of tablets to all students should be immediately addressed.
We recommend that the DOE offer compensatory services to students to make-up for the lost instruction and services at East River Academy since March 2020. The City should determine the extent to which students were not provided with mandated special education services and offer services to make up for this loss, which should include credit-bearing tutoring. Further, we recommend that compensatory services be made available to all students who attended ERA since March 2020—not limited to students with disabilities—given the widespread deficiencies in educational services.
Young people have a far better chance of making progress at schools in their communities rather than in detention centers, jails, and prisons. However, if New York City continues to incarcerate people and subject them to inhumane conditions at Rikers, they should not also be denied their right to educational services.
We thank the Committee on Education, the Committee on Criminal Justice, and the Committee on General Welfare for holding this oversight hearing and for their dedication to improving education for youth who are incarcerated and detained. Should you be interested in further discussing these issues or have any questions, please contact Ariana Brill, Equal Justice Works Fellow/Education Attorney at firstname.lastname@example.org or (646) 357-6831.