Quantity and quality of education for detained Ontario youth varies: report

The Roy McMurtry Youth Centre in Brampton. Government of Ontario

TORONTO — The quantity and quality of education offered to youth in Ontario’s detention centres varies greatly by facility, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened those discrepancies, according to a new report by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

The report, based on interviews with youth who spent time in facilities and adults involved in the youth justice system, says there are major differences in the number of hours of education available to youth in each centre.

There are also differences in the scope and depth of programming available, with participants in some facilities voicing concerns that youth were being granted high school credits without having learned the material in order to make the centre “look good,” it says.

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Combined, these lead to “vastly different educational experiences and opportunities for a youth, depending on the facility they happened to be placed in,” the document released Tuesday says.

The amount and quality of schooling in facilities was also notably different to what’s offered to students attending mainstream schools in the community, where the standard school day is five hours excluding breaks, the report found.

It notes that Ontario school boards are not legally required to provide education in youth detention centres, but instead do so through voluntary partnerships that can be cut short at any time, “leading to significant disruptions to youths’ education.”

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“The idea that youth jails could be schools, places of hope, places of education and places of growth is supposed to be the silver lining behind the heartbreaking story behind every kid that’s behind bars,” Michael Bryant, the CCLA’s executive director, said Tuesday.

“The good news is that in some institutions, people are working very hard to deliver the best schooling they can to kids in jail. The bad news is this: I’m sorry to report that in some institutions, the youth jails are little more than human warehouses, a place where kids don’t get better, and probably get worse.”

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The report says the discrepancies have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but appear to be caused by differences in organizational culture.

Some facilities seem to treat youth as “security threats to be managed,” rather than students who deserve an education – particularly in cases where the majority of youth are Black, the report says.

In one security-focused institution, a decision was made to separate youth living in different units due to a belief that allowing them to mix would pose a threat to security, the report says. As a result, schooling hours were split between living units, meaning one group could only attend in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, it says.

The document lays out 19 recommendations, including establishing minimum standards for education in youth detention centres, and an audit of the educational programs currently available there.

The research project began in 2016 and involved more than 50 interviews, about a quarter of them with youth. All participants were self-selected volunteers.

All youth who participated had to be 16 or older and have spent time in a detention centre in the last five years.

The CCLA says it was given access to conduct interviews in four facilities earlier this year, which meant they had to be done remotely due to the pandemic. In comparison, interviews with adult participants began in 2017.

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It also says that only male-identifying youth volunteered to take part in the project, and no Indigenous youth participated, meaning “many critical youth perspectives are missing.”

A spokesperson for the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services said it’s important that the province provide youth with “the right supports and interventions that respond to their unique needs, while also ensuring accountability.”

“Youth in custody have access to education through local school boards, to ensure a continuum of learning,” Krystle Caputo, director of communications for Merrilee Fullerton, wrote in a statement. “We also deliver programming to help youth build their strengths so that they can become positive, productive members of society upon release.”

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