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Some of the most needy youth in the region are not receiving an education they deserve, according to the official in charge of their care.

Those teens are confined at Lake County Juvenile Detention Center.

Thomas Stefaniak Jr., the senior judge in Lake County's Juvenile Division, said he believes these tweens and teens should be taking classes and keeping current on school work while confined.

Porter Circuit Court Judge Mary Harper said the Porter County Juvenile Detention Center has an excellent partnership with Porter County schools.  

A similar relationship does not exist in Lake County.

Stefaniak thinks Merrillville Community School Corp. should provide classes to those teens, because they are within the school corporation district. However, Merrillville schools only provides Title 1 money as required.

"I don't want to throw Merrillville under the bus, and we don't want to start a fight with them," Stefaniak said. "They are providing some of the things we need, but we could be doing so much more."

Merrillville interim Superintendent Tony Lux said he didn't know of a law "that speaks to who should provide education services to JDC."

Lux said it is unreasonable to expect one school system to be responsible to educate all teen criminal offenders confined to JDC who are from schools throughout Lake County.

"Such responsibility would result in significant disadvantage on school grades from the state," Lux said. "Those students need much more support than average students, including extensive and costly therapy intervention."

Lux said JDC should receive dollars for those students because the school corporations to which those students belong do not receive the state tuition reimbursement.

He said his school district provides Title 1 funds to Juvenile Detention Center, and this year JDC will receive $209,000 in Title 1 money from it.

"This pays for supplementary reading and math instruction through an instructor hired with this money," Lux said.

Lux noted those students rarely spend more than a few weeks or months at JDC.

"The best plan for them is to focus on one or two credit-bearing education software programs like A-Plus to acquire one or two credits while there," he said.

Stefaniak said the average population at JDC used to be more than 100, but with the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, they have no more than 30 to 50 teens. The center has a capacity of 146.

"We only confine the most troubled kids," Stefaniak said. "We take those who are a risk to themselves, a risk to others or a risk of failure to appear."

On July 1, there were 38 teens at the center. Of that number, 11 were from Gary; seven from Hammond; one from Hobart; one from Merrillville; four from East Chicago; six from a day school; five from a charter school and three others.

Geraldine Giglio, director of Lake County Juvenile Detention Services, said there is one county-paid teacher who teaches language arts, English and writing to teens. 

While they continue to wrestle with how to educate confined teens, Stefaniak said Lake County's JDC will begin using a credit-recovery program called GradPoint, an online program for sixth- through 12th-graders.

Lake County's JDC has a licensed special education teacher who provides special education services to identified special education students, said Jane Sanderson-Winkoff, executive director of Northwest Indiana Special Education Cooperative in Crown Point.

Porter County JDC works with schools

Harper said Porter County JDC partners with the county's seven school corporations.

"We have sustained our good working relationship built up over many years with the school districts. ...It is not about locking kids up, but about how we can help build better lives," she said.

Porter County Juvenile Services Center Director Allison Cox said Valparaiso Community Schools provides about $60,000 in Title 1 money each year for a tutor. Cox said the county pays for one full-time teacher and one part-time teacher.

"The Valparaiso schools has been a wonderful partner for many years," Cox said.

The full-time teacher works with students on a variety of projects and gets their homework from schools, Cox said. Valparaiso Community Schools also helped obtain iPads, projectors, books and art supplies as well, she said.

Porter County Juvenile Detention Center can hold up to 24 teens, but the population changes daily.

Cox said when teens first enter the center, they are tested academically.

"Sometimes the teen may be a junior but their reading level is at a sixth-grade level," she said.

She said they also check to see if a teen has been withdrawn, expelled or suspended, because that affects what teachers can do.

"If the teen is in school and on track and not expelled or suspended, our education staff will work with that school to obtain a schedule and get their homework from their teachers," Cox said.

However, if a student has been expelled or has withdrawn, Cox said there isn't a lot they can do in terms of getting homework for school.

Cox said they have been working with the Neighbors' New Vistas program in Portage to help teens earn credits toward graduation. In the fall, they also will have GradPoint.

Possible solutions in Lake, changes in Porter

Stefaniak thinks solutions are in changing state law. He said the law should allow Merrillville Community School district to claim the per-pupil cost for those teens who are confined to Juvenile Detention Center or allow the center to claim those students.

The other solution would be to have a law that gives juvenile courts money to fund teachers to educate teens while they are confined.

Stefaniak wants to open the issue for public discussion in a community forum he will host.

State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, a ranking minority member of the Senate education committee and a member of the appropriations committee, said she has not spoken with Stefaniak about the issue but plans to attend his meeting.

"I would think this is something the state Legislature needs to take a look at," Rogers said. "Maybe there is some remedy in the school funding formula."

In addition to wanting to see changes in the law, Stefaniak is looking at The Crossings. Headquartered in Elkhart, it is an accredited alternative school that provides high school diplomas, work-training opportunities, parent and student support groups, service learning and job training programs.

"The Crossings is willing to work with the most troubled children," he said.

An Indianapolis-based organization called Youth Law T.E.A.M. of Indiana is proposing a charter school called CORE Academy.

If approved by Ball State University's Office of Charter Schools, CORE Academy wants to open charter schools at Lake County Juvenile Detention Center, Porter County Juvenile Detention Center and in Montgomery County at Muskegon River Youth Home of Indiana in the fall 2016.

Laurie Elliott, executive director of the organization, said she has had preliminary conversations with Stefaniak and Harper.

"Both were open to listening about the possible benefits of participating with CORE Academy, but neither have made a commitment to participate," Elliott said.

Stefaniak said that proposal left him with more questions than answers. He wants to know more about what they will do at the juvenile center and how the education program will be managed.

"We are not school people. We are not educators, but we have an obligation to our kids," he said.

Harper said Porter County is prepared to partner with it "to determine how reasonable it would be here in Porter County."

"We believe our region would be a good pilot area," Harper said. "We know that education is the foundation of children growing up to be productive members of our society."

Financing educational programs

Lake County Juvenile Division's budget is about $7 million, with 172 employees. Of that amount, the Juvenile Detention Center accounts for about $2.9 million, with 87 employees.

To generate additional revenue, last year the Lake County Council approved JDC taking out-of-county teens. It houses one Jasper County teen and two teens involved in federal cases.

Stefaniak said in the past few months this has been implemented, $50,000 has been generated that will enhance the education department or as a pay incentive. He said many juvenile detention officers use these positions as stepping stones to move into the criminal justice system.

He said detention officers earn $11.40 an hour and because of that, there's high turnover; Stefaniak would like to increase their pay to encourage them to stay longer with the juvenile division.

In Porter County, Harper estimated the juvenile division budget at less than $2.5 million a year with about 55 employees. Of that number, there are 32 detention officers.

"There are a few things we could tweak but we are asking for a minimal increase in our budget. We try to make do," she said.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.