Last week, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division (DOJ) released a joint guidance letter reminding juvenile justice residential facilities of their obligations under Title IX [PDF] and other civil rights laws to provide equal access to quality educational opportunities for confined youth.

The guidance makes it clear that under Title IX, all facilities that receive federal funds must offer equal educational opportunities without regard to sex. That means youth detention centers must make sure girls have equal access to career and technical programs and that facilities cannot rely on gender stereotypes when determining what opportunities to make available (e.g., automotive repair classes only for boys and cosmetology only for girls). The guidance also says that under Title IX, facilities must protect committed youth from sexual harassment and violence regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or conformity with sex stereotypes.

The guidance will be meaningful for incarcerated girls—particularly African American girls, who are among the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system, as detailed in Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call for Educational Equity, a recent report from NWLC and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As we discuss in the report, although African American girls represented less than 17 percent of all female students in the 2009-10 school year, they comprised 31 percent of girls referred to law enforcement and 43 percent of girls who experienced a school-related arrest. African American girls are often detained for status offenses, like truancy or running away, which frequently result from unaddressed needs related to living in poverty or experiencing violence or other trauma. Data also indicate that African American girls are increasingly detained for being victims of sex trafficking. In 2013, Black children under 18 made up almost 62 percent of all juvenile prostitution-related arrests in the United States—up from 59 percent in 2012.

These statistics show that girls—especially those in the juvenile justice system—need trauma-informed services, as well as quality educational opportunities and career-planning resources so they can effectively transition back to school or work once they leave correctional facilities. Unfortunately, when compared to services offered to boys in the juvenile justice system, girls often get the short end of the stick. In 2009, the ACLU of Maryland shed light on this disparity in a report [PDF] that profiled an all-girls juvenile correctional facility that did not offer the opportunities that detained youth at the nearby all-boys facility received. Since then, the state of Maryland passed legislation aimed to help advance parity for girls in the juvenile justice system.

The OCR and DOJ reminder to the juvenile justice system of their federal civil rights responsibilities is hugely important and sends a strong message. As always, of course, the key will be strong enforcement. Hopefully we are moving towards a world where girls in confinement will have access to the educational opportunities necessary to succeed outside the system. 

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