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Youth in Washington Prisons Challenge Lack of Education

by David C. Fathi

Youth incarcerated in the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) are challenging the state's failure to provide them with basic and special education, as required by state and federal law.

The lawsuit, Tunstall v. Bergeson , was filed in state court on November 21, 1997, and certified as a class action on February 9, 1998. It names as defendants the Secretary of WDOC, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the superintendents of the school districts in which incarcerated youth are located. The lawsuit seeks education services for youth who are currently incarcerated, as well as compensatory education for those who were denied education during past periods of incarceration.

Washington's state constitution declares the education of all children to be the "paramount duty of the state," and state statutes provide that basic education shall be available to all persons under the age of 21. In addition, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. , confers a right to special education services on disabled persons under the age of 22.

Despite these clear mandates, Washington state officials have failed to provide basic and special education services to youth in prison. Indeed, in some cases youth have fewer educational opportunities than adults housed in the same prison.

The effects of this failure are increasingly significant, as more and more youth are tried as adults and sent to prison rather than to juvenile facilities. State officials estimate that there will be 239 youth under 18 in WDOC in the 1998-99 school year, and the number is expected to climb in coming years.

The state has taken the position that youth in prison are "civilly dead" and therefore not entitled to an education. Trial is tentatively set to begin September 28, 1998.

David C. Fathi, a staff attorney with the Institutions Project of Columbia Legal Services in Seattle, is co-counsel for the plaintiff class in Tunstall v. Bergeson

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Related legal case

Tunstall v. Bergeson