Four Ways to Support Justice-Involved Youth During School Reintegration

Youth with juvenile justice contact are a unique population that require deliberate and collaborative reintegration into the school setting to reduce their likelihood of a re-offense and to help promote their academic success. Roughly 55% of youth who engage in delinquent behavior re-offend within twelve months (Mathur & Clark, 2014).  This post will offer information on strategies for supporting school reintegration.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has summarized school referral to law enforcement and arrest data as a part of their State and National estimations report (Office of Civil Rights, 2018). Data from the 2015-16 school year estimates that 291,100 students were referred to law enforcement from schools and 82,000 were students with disabilities. The estimated number of students referred to law enforcement represents a 30 percent increase (68,500 students) in youth referred to law enforcement from the 2013-14 school year (Education Week, 2017). It is also noted that African-American students were disproportionately represented in this group making up 15.5 percent of the general student population but 31 percent of referrals to law enforcement and arrests (Office of Civil Rights, 2018). Despite these numbers, schools are actively working to decrease the number of students arrested. However, this is not enough. We must effectively support students to reduce the chance of repeat arrest.

To reintegrate youth who are returning from the justice system into schools, we must first understand who they are and what factors contribute to their initial contact as well as their likely recidivism.  Here are a few facts about youth who have interactions with the juvenile justice system:

  • Demographic contributions – Youth are disproportionately African American and Latinx males. Girls of color are the fastest growing population of youth referred to law enforcement by schools. Further, many of these youth live in poverty and have family members who have experienced incarceration or interactions with police.
  • Academic contributions – Many experience academic difficulties and deficits. Many of these students are at risk for school non-completion due to credit deficiency and poor grades. A growing number of these students are also eligible for special education services. Poor school climate, low teacher expectation and zero tolerance discipline practices also contribute to youth contact with juvenile justice.
  • Systematic contributions – Many are considered “system-involved” youth. This means they and/or their families are involved with at least one (often multiple) social support systems. These include, foster care, child welfare, and community based mental health. For many, involvement with these systems is the result of Adverse Childhood Experiences. These experiences, including trauma, make them more vulnerable for juvenile justice involvement.

Researchers have identified four primary areas that need to be addressed in the school setting to best meet the needs of youth returning from juvenile justice contact. These areas should be explicitly addressed in the design and implementation of individual reintegration plans for these students. These include safety, engagement and challenge, support, care, and connection, peer social and emotional connection (Osher, D., Amos, L.B., Gonsoulin, S., 2012).

  • Safety – When preparing for the return of a student from juvenile justice contact, including both long term facilities and short-term arrests, their safety in the school setting should be a priority. Planning to promote the student’s physical and emotional safety are imperative. Physical safety may include anticipating altercations between students. Emotional safety refers to treatment from peers, teachers, and administrators. Creating an intervention that explicitly protects students from ridicule or bullying upon their return is a hallmark of a successful reintegration plan.
  • Support, care, and connection – Academic support should be interwoven into reintegration intervention plans. Making sure students feel connected to their school is important. This fosters the desire to engage academically and can be vital to academic success. Participation in mentoring programs can help to facilitate the transition back into schools.
  • Engagement and challenge – Engaging students returning from juvenile justice contact also means engaging their families. Reintegration plans should be shared with the family and provide clear expectations for the student. These expectations should include high academic rigor and the use of culturally responsive instructional approaches to engage the student in learning. This portion of the intervention should focus on student interests and the development of future plans.
  • Peer social and emotional connections -Social and emotional support should be interwoven into reintegration intervention plans. There should be explicit integration of social and emotional learning curriculum that highlights prosocial behaviors.

Implementing evidence-based strategies to support reintegration was found to reduce recidivism and increase academic performance (Houchins, Shippen & Murphy, 2012). Integrating these four elements and consulting with school psychologists to develop individual reintegration plans for youth returning from juvenile justice contact is the best way to promote student success in schools and reduce their recidivism.


Houchins, D. E., Shippen, M. E., & Murphy, K. M. (2012). Evidence-based professional development considerations along the school-to-prison pipeline. Teacher Education and Special Education35(4), 271-283.


About the Author

Tara C. Raines, Ph.D., N.C.S.P., is an assistant professor in the Child, Family, and School psychology program at University of Denver, having completed her doctorate in school psychology at the Georgia State University. Her research focus is investigating school practices that encourage the disproportionate referral of youth of color to juvenile justice programs. She also studies the development and assessment of school and education based diversion programs for low-level offenders. She is a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education.