May 01, 2012

Strategies for Juvenile Court Judges

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

A. Develop a list of school district contacts, and primarily special education directors, and develop relationships with these key stakeholders. Find and develop relationships with other important local stakeholders – attorneys specializing in special education cases, local disability advocacy groups, and other interested parties.

B. There are a number of important questions to ask when working with a youth already identified with a learning disability:5

  • Is the IEP being implemented as written?
  • Has the youth received appropriate services under a current IEP?
  • Are the needs addressed in the IEP considered and integrated into the consequences determined by the juvenile court?
  • Is there a possibility that because of the learning disability the youth does not understand the charges or proceedings?

C. It may be appropriate to refer a first-time offender or low-risk youth suspected of learning disabilities to diversion or informal supervision and encourage the school district to pursue evaluation and IEP status.

D. It may be appropriate to defer formal involvement pending any evaluative, due process, or disciplinary steps the school district may be pursuing.

E. Dispositions should show the court’s review of the special education evaluation, goals (i.e., progress made), and services provided.

F. At the formal proceedings stage, determine if the school district should provide service, rather than the court. Schools often have interventions and programming not available to the courts, including in-class behavioral plans, specialized school staff, learning specialists, and after-school programming.

If the court has established relationships with school districts’ special education directors, then this process of information sharing and coordination may work relatively well. However, with resistant, new, or non-responsive school districts, more direct court action may be in order.

For example, a judge may need to appoint a local defense counselor who is experienced in special education representation and known to the local school districts as an attorney who will get things done to get the special education director to cooperate. Sometimes appointing a defense counselor advocate in this manner one time will bring resistant public school districts on board with the youth’s team.

G. If placement of the youth is necessary, the disposition should reflect the need to meet IEP goals and services within the facility.

H. Oversee the transition of youth from correctional facilities, including longer-term detention stays, back to their public school districts. This oversight includes coordinating and enforcing the IEP service needs.

For example, a juvenile court judge may face a situation where the IEP requires assistance upon release in the youth’s application to a local community college or related vocational training program, or the youth may need services to and from training programs and independent living. The local school district is required to provide these transition services for youth through age 21, if all other assessment and team requirements are met.


1. The Children’s Nonverbal Learning Disabilities Scale© was excerpted from the Developmental Screening and Referral Inventory (DSRI) by David B. Goldstein, PhD, 1999.

2. Grisso, T., Barnum, R., Fletcher, K., Cauffman, E., & Peuschold, D. (2001). Massachusetts youth screening instrument for mental health needs
of juvenile justice youths. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40, 541-548.

3. Schmidt, F., Hoge, R., & Gomes, L. (2005). Reliability and validity analysis of the Youth Level of Service/Case Management Inventory. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 32(3), 329.

4. Howell, K.W. & Wolford, B.I. (2002). Corrections and juvenile justice: Current education practice for youth with learning and other disabilities. Monograph Series on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice. College Park, MD: National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice.

5. Mears & Aron, supra note 4; Osher, D., Rouse, J., Quinn, M., Kandizoria, K., & Woodruff, D. (2002). Addressing invisible barriers: Improving outcomes for youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system. College Park, MD: Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice, American Institute for Research.