Characteristics of and Services Provided to Youth in
Secure Care Facilities
Joseph C. Gagnon and Brian Barber
University of Florida
ABSTRACT: Youth who are incarcerated in secure detention and commitment settings display a
complex array of educational, behavioral, and mental health issues that affect the services they
require, as well as their responsiveness to interventions. Yet, seldom are these needs understood or
taken into account when providing services in secure care settings. In this article, research
documenting what is known regarding the characteristics of incarcerated youth is summarized.
Current research on the use of evidence-based interventions and services for youth in secure settings
is reviewed next. Finally, the limitations of existing research and practice and the use of response to
intervention (Rtl) for linking youth characteristics to research-based strategies are discussed.
Characteristics of and Services
Provided to Youth in Secure Care
Adolescents in secure care settings have
perhaps the most complex educational, be-
havioral, and mental health needs of any youth
in our society (Gagnon & Richards, 2008).
Only recently have the numerous and interre-
lated difficulties experienced by adjudicated
youth begun to be understood. Educational
disabilities, inappropriate behaviors in school
and the community, mental health problems
and/or substance abuse, and experience with
abuse, neglect, and violence are frequent
characteristics of troubled youth who serve
time in secure care facilities. Due to the
seriousness of these characteristics, these
youth require comprehensive services and
research-based interventions. Direct service
providers in secure care are challenged to
provide empirically validated approaches
while taking into consideration the unique
and complicated characteristics of youth.
Simultaneously, service providers must work
within a juvenile justice system that is largely
driven by security concerns, often at the
expense of other needed supports and services
(e.g., adequate school funding and staffing,
proactive and positive approaches to youth
behavior, screening and treatment of youth
with mental disorders; see Leone & Cutting,
2004; National Mental Health Association,
2004; Nelson, Sugai, & Smith, 2005).
In order to achieve a broad understanding
of the appropriateness of services provided to
youth in secure care, it is necessary to
understand their characteristics, which span
several dimensions (i.e., academic, behavioral,
mental health). The extent to which interven-
tions in secure care address these characteris-
tics and needs can be determined through an
examination of available research. A review of
limitations to current research and practice
then provides a basis for considering one
approach, response to intervention (Rtl), for
selecting and implementing interventions that
consider the unique student characteristics of
Characteristics of Youth in Secure Care
The academic characteristics of all youth
in secure care provide a context for an analysis
of these characteristics among the youth
commonly overrepresented in juvenile correc-
tions, namely those with emotional/behavioral
disorders (E/BD) and learning disabilities (LD).
Regarding student behavior, we summarize
available research on the disability classifica-
tion of E/BD in secure care. Last, we delve into
key mental health characteristics of these
youth, including information available on the
rates of mental disorders, drug abuse, and
histories of abuse and neglect.
Studies focusing on the academic achieve-
ment of youth with disabilities in juvenile
corrections are relatively limited. However, it
is clear that academic difficulties are a
significant factor affecting the educational
Behavioral Disorders, 36 (1), 7-19
November 2010 / 7
and postschool success of incarcerated youth.
In a review of literature, Foley (2001) reported
that academic functioning of students in
juvenile corrections typically was between
the fifth- to ninth-grade levels. Foley (2001)
further noted that a high percentage of youth
who were incarcerated had failed a course,
been retained in grade, and had earned no
high school course credit at the time of
incarceration. A study of 186 incarcerated
youth by Baltodano, Harris, and Rutherford
(2005) similarly indicated that youth in juve-
nile corrections were below the mean on
standardized measures of achievement. More-
over, incarcerated youth are less likely to
graduate-in one study analyzing the National
Longitudinal Survey of Youth, incarcerated
youth were 26% less likely to graduate from
high school than nonincarcerated youth (Hjal-
marsson, 2008). Mathematics and reading are
two critical areas affecting the academic and
post-school success of youth, including those
in secure care (Gagnon, Wehby, Strong, &
Falk, 2006). Compared with their non-delin-
quent counterparts, higher percentages of
delinquent youth have difficulties in reading
and mathematics (Allen-DeBoer, Malmgren, &
Glass, 2006; Meltzer, Levine, Karniski, Palfrey
& Clarke, 1984). By middle school, approxi-
mately 50% of delinquent youth are below
average in all academic areas (Meltzer et al.).
Several studies of incarcerated youth have
substantiated the serious academic problems
of youth in secure care. For example, in a
study of 583 incarcerated youth, Beebe and
Mueller (1993) reported that youth have
difficulties, "conceptualizing and processing
information, with basic reading skills, and with
mathematical computation" (p. 195). In a
study of 555 detained and committed youth,
Krezmien, Mulcahy, and Leone (2008) report-
ed that achievement scores on standardized
assessments in reading and mathematics were
about four years behind that of same-aged,
nonincarcerated peers. Similarly, Zamora
(2005) conducted research on 317 male
juvenile detainees in Texas, and reported that
only 25% of the study sample had educational
achievement test scores at the middle or high
school levels in reading and mathematics.
Academic achievement also has a bearing on
recidivism, as evidenced by the studies of
Archwamety and Katsiyannis (1999, 2000)
who found that delinquent youth in remedial
reading or mathematics groups were twice as
likely to recidivate as youth in a control group.
Other researchers have focused on the
reading achievement of youth in secure care
and reported similar results. For example, in a
study of 398 incarcerated youth, Harris,
Baltodano, Bal, Jolivette, and Mulcahy (2009)
noted that incarcerated youth scored below
nonincarcerated youth on reading achieve-
ment assessments. In another study of 91
juvenile offenders ages 15-17 in England,
reported reading skills were, on average, one
standard deviation below expected age levels
on standardized achievement assessments
(Snowling, Adams, Bowyer-Crane, & Tobin,
2000). Brunner (1993) found that incarcerated
youth functioned at a fourth-grade reading
level, and Coulter (2004) noted youth com-
prehension was at a fifth-grade level.
Given the high percentage of incarcerated
youth having an educational disability, a
specific understanding of the academic diffi-
culties of youth with E/BD and LD is particu-
larly relevant. In a national survey of principals
of juvenile corrections facilities for committed
youth, Gagnon, Barber, Van Loan, and Leone
(2009) reported that about 40% of these youth
were classified with a disability. Similarly, in a
national survey of heads of state departments
of juvenile corrections and combined juvenile/
adult corrections systems, 33% of incarcerated
youth were classified with a disability (Quinn,
Rutherford, Leone, Osher, & Poirier, 2005). In
contrast, 12% of students in regular public
schools have identified disabilities (Stizek,
Pittsonberger, Riordan, Lyter, & Orlofsky,
2007). Moreover, of students with disabilities
in regular public schools only about 7.9%
were labeled with E/BD and 46.4% with LD,
whereas of youth with disabilities in secure
care, 47.4% were identified as E/BD and
38.6% are identified as LD (Quinn et al.,
A comprehensive review of reading and
mathematics research on youth with E/BD and
LD is beyond the scope of the current
discussion. However, in general, youth with
E/BD or LD have serious academic difficulties.
Researchers (e.g., Greenbaum et al., 1996;
Lane, Barton-Arwood, Nelson & Wehby 2008;
Lane, Carter, Pierson & Glaeser, 2006; Trout
Nordness, Pierce, & Epstein, 2003) consistent-
ly report that youth with E/BD and LD possess
significant skill deficits in reading. Similarly,
youth with disabilities commonly score below
their nondisabled peers on national and state
mathematics assessments. For example, on the
National Assessment of Educational Progress
Behavioral Disorders, 36 (1), 7-19
8 /November 2010
(NAEP) more than 40% of students with
disabilities scored below the basic level (Lee,
Grigg, & Dion, 2007).
With regard to youth with E/BD, Trout et
al. (2003) reviewed the literature and reported
that 89% of studies on reading indicated
students with E/BD functioned below grade
level. In another study of 155 youth with E/BD,
83% scored below the mean of the norm group
across content areas on the Woodcock-John-
son-Ill (Nelson, Benner, Lane, & Smith, 2004).
Similarly, in a recent meta-analysis Reid,
Gonzales, Nordness, Trout, and Epstein
(2004) noted that the academic achievement
of students with E/BD consistently fell below
that of non-disabled peers in reading and
mathematics. Researchers (Carr-George, Van-
nest, Wilson, & Davis, 2009) also have
reported that only 44% of youth with E/BD
met proficiency standards on state reading
Concerning youth with LD, researchers
reported significant deficits in both reading
and mathematics. For example, Lyon (1995)
estimated that 80% of students with LD have
difficulties with reading; specific difficulties
have been reported for reading comprehension
(Mastropieri, Scruggs, & Graetz, 2003), as well
as a host of associated reading skills. Lane et
al. (2006) noted that youth with LD typically
scored two standard deviations below the
mean on a standardized assessment of basic
reading skills (e.g., sight vocabulary, phonics,
structural analysis). Researchers (Algozzine,
O'Shea, Crews, & Stoddard, 1987; Bryant,
Kim, Hatman, & Bryant, 2006; Maccini,
McNaughton, & Ruhl, 1999; Maccini, Mul-
cahy, & Wilson, 2007) also consistently note
that youth with LD have deficits in mathemat-
ics that seriously impact their academic
success (e.g., difficulties with procedural
errors, organizing information, working and
long-term memory, computation skills, and
Behavior and Mental Health
In addition to academic difficulties, stu-
dents in secure care have several unique and
complicated behavior and mental health char-
acteristics that can affect the provision of
appropriate educational and other services.
As noted, the rate of youth with E/BD in secure
care is roughly six times that of regular public
schools (U.S. Department of Education, 2009).
Common characteristics of students with E/BD
may contribute to their difficulties while in
secure care. For example, many of these youth
lack basic cognitive and social skills needed
for appropriate self-assertion and cooperation
during their time in secure care (Gagnon &
Richards, 2008; Nelson, Leone, & Rutherford,
2004). Additionally, deficits in interpersonal
problem solving, future orientation, reward
sensitivity, and the capacity for self-regulation
are contributors to the maladaptive behavior
exhibited by many juvenile offenders (see
Steinberg, 2009). Students with primary emo-
tional disturbance also exhibit frequent anti-
social and aggressive tendencies that place
them at greater risk for delinquency and
placement in secure care (Connor, 2002).
Substantially increased rates of aggression,
including symptoms of irritability, impulsivity,
and emotional liability also are common to
several clinical diagnoses of mental disorders
prevalent in juvenile corrections, including
conduct disorder (CD), oppositional defiant
disorder (ODD), attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD), and various internalizing
disorders such as anxiety and some subtypes of
depression (Teplin, Abram, McClelland, Dul-
can, & Mericle, 2002). Research has suggested
that a disproportionate number of detained
and committed youth have behavioral issues
related to the cognitive deficiencies and/or
distortions presented by these disorders (Cauff-
man, 2004; Teplin et al, 2002). Youth with one
or more psychiatric disorders account for
nearly half of youth in juvenile detention
centers (Wasserman, McReynolds, Ko, Katz,
& Carpenter, 2005), and roughly two-thirds of
those in commitment facilities (Coalition for
Juvenile Justice, 2000; Cocozza & Skowyra,
2000), while comparative prevalence rates for
youth in the general population are approxi-
mated at 15-25% (Kazdin, 2000). Specific
reports of the frequency of mental and
behavioral disorders range from approximately
2.9-16% for ADHD to 10-25% for anxiety and
depressive forms in youth in juvenile correc-
tion facilities (Teplin et al., 2002). Not
surprisingly, disruptive behavior disorders
(CD, ODD) occur in over half of youth in
juvenile corrections (Teplin et al., 2002), and
overlap considerably with populations that are
educationally classified as having E/BD.
Of particular concern is the prevalence of
youth with multiple behavior and mental
disorders in secure care. Abram and col-
leagues (2003) used the Diagnostic Interview
Schedule for Children (DISC, V. 2.3) with a
Behavioral Disorders, 36 (1), 7-19
November 2010 / 9
randomly selected sample of more than 1,800
detained youth to determine that more than
half of those interviewed met criteria for
multiple disorders. In a recent multi-state study
of over 1,400 youth, Shufelt and Cocozza
(2006) further report that 60% of youth with
mental disorders in the juvenile justice system
actually meet criteria for three or more
disorders. The conferment of comorbid condi-
tions among high proportions of incarcerated
youth suggests that intensive treatment is
necessary, as these youth are particularly
resistant to treatment. For example, adoles-
cents with comorbid CD and ADHD exhibit an
increased tendency for chronic and repeated
offending (Grisso, 2008).
For many youth in secure care, the issues
associated with their mental health needs are
significantly complicated by the presence of a
co-occurring substance use disorder. It is
estimated that roughly 45% of delinquent
youth have substance use problems (Loeber,
Burke, & Lahey, 2002; McClelland, Elkington,
Teplin, & Abram, 2004). Frequently these
issues co-occur with mental illnesses such as
conduct disorder (McCord, Spatz-Widom, &
Crowell, 2001; Teplin et al., 2002), and some
researchers have theorized a connection be-
tween these factors (White & Gorman 2000;
Mears 2001). By many estimates, substance
abuse problems in secure care occur nearly
three times as often as in the general popula-
tion, and accounts of the regularity and
severity of drug use support these estimates
(Atkins et al., 1999; Shufelt & Cocozza, 2006;
Teplin et al., 2002). For example, McCellend
et al. (2004) reported substance use disorders
in half of a sample of detained juveniles, with
multiple substance use disorders occurring for
nearly 21% of youth.
The behavioral and mental health prob-
lems seen for youth in secure care settings also
may be related to traumatic experiences,
including histories of abuse and neglect or
exposure to violence. High rates of abuse and/
or neglect are common to youth who are
engaged with the juvenile justice system
(Evans, Alpers, Macari, & Mason, 1996).
Specifically, youth with histories of abuse are
six to seven times more likely to be arrested
than counterparts without such histories
(Brooks & Petit, 1997). Of those involved with
the juvenile justice system, rates of reported
physical abuse are between 50 and 70%
(Evans et al., 1996). Youth with E/BD in
particular are reported to have experienced
higher incidence of abuse and neglect. For
example, one national survey estimated nearly
38% of students with E/BD were physically or
sexually abused, 41% were neglected, and
over half had experienced emotional abuse
(Oseroff, Oseroff, Westling, & Gessner, 1999).
Youth who have either witnessed or been
victims to violence account for over 90% of
detained youth and 11% of these youth are
classified as having posttraumatic stress disor-
der (PTSD) (Abram et al., 2004; Teplin et al.,
2002). In a study of the health status of
youthful offenders, Shelton (2000) reported
that 16% had experienced serious bodily
injury (i.e., sustained gunshot or stab wound)
within the past year. Youth experience of
traumatic life events is associated with their
behavioral characteristics; in particular, youth
with PTSD are susceptible to responding to
threats in an aggressive and unpredictable
manner (Grisso, 2008).
Alarmingly, almost two-thirds of juvenile
detainment facilities hold youth who are
awaiting mental health and/or substance abuse
treatment (Coalition for Juvenile Justice, 2000).
In 33 states, youth with mental illness are
detained without any charges filed against
them (U.S. House of Representatives Commit-
tee on Government Reform, 2004). The
behavioral and mental health characteristics
of delinquent youth have created a scenario in
which juvenile corrections facilities have been
described as the "community's de facto
mental health center" (Grisso, 2008, p. 151).
For this and other reasons, it is increasingly
apparent that a need exists to attend to student
characteristics in order to effectively guide
practices for educating and treating confined
Student Characteristics and
In light of the complex academic, behav-
ioral, and mental health characteristics of
juvenile offenders in secure care, the develop-
ment of comprehensive and rehabilitative
programs is essential. Unfortunately, research-
ers and experts have voiced longstanding
concerns with the provision of the most basic
education, behavioral, and mental health
services for youth in secure care (Gagnon &
Richards, 2008). Educational services may be
negatively impacted by such problems as
physical space, insufficient funding, inade-
quate instructional time, frequent changes in
Behavioral Disorders, 36 (1), 7-19
10 / November 2 010
the daily schedule, and behavior-related inter-
ruptions (Rozalski & Engle, 2005). Further,
approaches to youth behavior are often limited
to those that are punitive in nature (Barton &
Butts, 2008; Nelson et al., 2005), and segre-
gating youth may be used in lieu of provision
of appropriate mental health services (Leone,
1994). There is scant research on the imple-
mentation of research-based approaches in
these areas. However, it is clear that evidence-
based interventions can have a positive effect
on incarcerated youth, and it is important to
review available information in order to
consider future directions for research and
practice (Brunner, 1993; Greenwood, 2008;
Katsiyannis, Ryan, Zhang, & Spann, 2008;
Research in the areas of mathematics and
reading instruction has rarely taken place in
secure care. Concerning mathematics, only
case study and teacher reports currently exist
on teachers' use of validated math instruction-
al approaches. No mathematics instructional
interventions have been published in secure
care settings. Regarding observed or reported
approaches, Coffey and Gemignani (1994)
reported the common use of worksheets for
drill and practice of math facts in juvenile
corrections math classes. In their analysis of
one facility, Maccini, Gagnon, Cutting, and
Leone (2006) noted that few teachers used
research-based instructional approaches
shown to be successful with students classified
as LD or E/BD (e.g., advance organizers, use of
technology and real-world problem solving
tasks, strategy instruction). Moreover, the
researchers reported that no teacher in the
study used other effective strategies, such as a
graduated instructional sequence (i.e., begin-
ning with concrete manipulatives, progressing
to pictures, then to drawings, and then numbers
and symbols), formal peer tutoring/collabora-
tion as a part of student groupings, or all of the
intended steps of explicit instruction. A recent
national study of special education mathematics
teachers working with students in secure care
demonstrated similar findings. The only empir-
ically validated instructional approach that
teachers reported using on a daily or weekly
basis was strategy instruction (Maccini, Strick-
land, Gagnon, & Malmgren, 2008).
Teacher reports of reading instruction in
secure care are slightly more positive. In a
recent national survey of reading teachers in
these settings (Wilkerson, Gagnon, & Mason,
2010), teachers reported using several re-
search-based and recommended strategies on
a daily or weekly basis including explicitly
teaching literacy-related skills (e.g., vocabu-
lary, text structure, summarization, study skills,
spelling). Other studies (Allen-DeBoer, Mal-
mgren, & Glass, 2006; Drakeford, 2002;
Houchins, Jolivette, Krezmien, & Baltodano,
2008; Malmgren & Leone, 2000; Simpson,
Swanson, & Kunkel, 1992) conducted in
secure care emphasize the value of explicit
instruction, and show positive results for the
procedure when used in isolation or combined
with other methods (e.g., peer tutoring).
Behavior and Mental Health
Youth in secure care facilities must be
actively engaged in the learning process;
however, problematic youth behavior can be
a major obstacle that may lead to a restriction
of access to educational offerings. Unfortu-
nately, practitioner views regarding effective
behavior policies and practices in corrections
vary widely (Mears, Shollenberger, Willison,
Owens, & Butts, 2008), and an attitude of
punishment and control commonly dictate
approaches to youth behavior (Nelson et al.,
2005). In general, there is a lack of research on
effective behavioral practices and supports for
youth in secure care. The lack of research is
confounded by methodological effects and
inconsistencies in evaluative techniques
(Greenwood, 2008), which make comparisons
across facilities or programs difficult or impos-
sible. However, some evidence of effective
interventions does exist (see Greenwood &
Turner, 2009). Among the specific program
models that have shown promising results for
incarcerated youth are school-wide positive
behavioral interventions and supports (SWPBIS)
and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
Recently, the value of SWPBIS has been
recognized for improving treatment and out-
comes for incarcerated youth (Gagnon, Rock-
well, & Scott, 2008; Nelson, Scott, Gagnon,
Jolivette, & Sprague, 2008). SWPBIS is a
coordinated, proactive, and positive approach
that is in contrast to the reactionary approach-
es to student behavior common to juvenile
corrections (Read, Quinn, & Nelson, 2008),
and works to build the capacity of schools or
facilities for addressing the behavioral needs of
Behavioral Disorders, 36 (1), 7-19
November 2010 / I
students through the systematic application of
increasingly intensive strategies and/or sup-
ports (see Nelson et al., 2008 for review).
SWPBIS is a promising approach to addressing
the needs of adjudicated youth in the juvenile
justice system, and is currently being used in
more than 286 alternative and juvenile cor-
rectional schools nationwide (Danielson,
Cobb, Sanchez, & Horner, 2007; National
Council on Disability, 2003). Although neces-
sary adjustments to meet the varied needs of
confined youth remain unclear, preliminary
results validate the use of SWPBIS in juvenile
correctional facilities (Sidana, 2006).
Treatments following principles of CBT
(e.g., Aggression Replacement Training, dia-
lectical behavior therapy, problem solving and
life skills instruction) also have demonstrated
effectiveness for improving outcomes and
reducing recidivism when implemented in
secure settings (Greenwood, 2008; Lipsey,
2009; Pearson, Lipton, Cleland, & Yee,
2002). CBT uses a skill-building approach to
teach adaptive reasoning and responding
during situations that provoke negative feelings
and reactionary behavior (Lipsey, Chapman, &
Landenberger, 2001), and may be used to
ameliorate and/or correct criminogenic pat-
terns of thinking and behavior (Landenberger
& Lipsey, 2005). Although the foci of CBT may
vary, typical components include instruction
on solving interpersonal problems, developing
personal responsibility, and honing life skills
and goals (Lipsey et al., 2001). Several
evaluation studies and meta-analyses support
the value of CBT-based programs for improv-
ing the behavioral and mental health outcomes
of juvenile offenders (Guerra & Slaby, 1990;
Landenberger & Lipsey, 2005; Latessa, 2006;
Lipsey, 2009; Pealer & Latessa, 2004; Rhode,
Jorgesen, Seely, & Mace, 2004).
Results of CBT have also shown promise for
reducing the symptoms associated with PTSD in
incarcerated juveniles (McMackin, Leisen, Sat-
tier, Krinsley, & Riggs, 2002; Ovaert, Cashel, &
Sewell, 2003). Analyses by Ovaert and col-
leagues suggested that treatment was most
beneficial for youth with trauma related to gang
and community violence. Similarly, the effects
of CBT for abused youth in secure care are
encouraging (Arnold et al., 2003).
A common feature of effective behavioral
and mental health interventions for youth in
secure care is a therapeutic orientation of
treatment (Greenwood & Turner, 2009). How-
ever, only about 15-30% of detained youth
meeting criteria for a mental disorder receive
treatment while in detention (Teplin et al.,
2006); youth served in commitment facilities
fare only slightly better (Kurtz, Thornes, &
Bailey, 1998). For these reasons, the aforemen-
tioned positive behavior approaches should be
considered in combination with other promising
practices, including individual and group coun-
seling (Guerra, Kim, & Boxer, 2008).
Future Directions for Research
Interventions based on student character-
istics and needs are particularly critical, given
the unique population in secure care. Wagner,
Kutash, Duchnowski, Epstein, and Sumi (2005)
noted the importance of understanding youth
characteristics in order to develop and imple-
ment appropriate policies, programs, and
service systems. Similarly, for incarcerated
youth it has been suggested that interventions
should target both student characteristics, as
well as those characteristics that predict future
reoffense (Altschuler, Armstrong, & Macken-
zie, 1999). Despite these assertions, student
characteristics have rarely been considered in
the evaluation and selection of interventions,
beyond identification of student disability or
mental disorder (Chitsabesan et al., 2006;
Skowyra & Cocozza, 2006). Accordingly, in
the following sections we first consider some
limitations to providing effective and respon-
sive interventions in the secure context. We
then discuss the potential of one model, Rtl, for
guiding the selection and implementation of
academic, behavioral, and mental health
interventions with incarcerated youth.
Current Limitations to Research and
An unfortunate pattern in the research is
that many teachers in secure care settings do not
use research-based instructional and behavioral
approaches that are effective. Indeed, Green-
wood (2008, p. 205) declares that "only about 5
percent of the youth who could benefit from
these improved programs now have the oppor-
tunity to do so." The identification and imple-
mentation of research-based strategies that
address specific student characteristics is com-
plicated by both practical and research issues
(Howell & Lipsey, 2004; Greenwood & Turner,
2009). Concerning research, broad constructs
such as disability often are used to identify
Behavioral Disorders, 36 (1), 7-19
12 / November 2010
effective approaches, rather than more specific
student characteristics. For example, in a review
of research on mathematics instructional inter-
ventions (Maccini, Mulcahy, & Wilson, 2007)
the primary approach to identifying the sample
was student classification as LD. However, what
is less understood is the effectiveness of
interventions on more specific mathematics
skills, or comorbid mathematics and reading
skill deficits that may affect success in such tasks
as mathematical problem solving. Green (2001)
asserts that a "leap of faith" is often necessary to
presume evidence of effectiveness for youth
with certain characteristics when interventions
are implemented with youth who are identified
broadly. Thus, it is necessary to recognize the
limitations of current research regarding links
between specific student skill deficits, academic
tasks, and intervention approaches.
Other difficulties arise when evaluating
the current state of understanding concerning
effective instructional, behavioral, and mental
health practices for youth in secure care.
Researchers have cited specific concerns with
the lack of rigor in research on incarcerated
youth (e.g., Lipsey & Cullen, 2007; Myers &
Farrell, 2008). For instance, the quality of
program implementation may be a significant
moderator of treatment outcomes for correc-
tional settings as personnel attempt to fit
programs to the secure context (Andrews &
Dowden, 2005). Often, institutional demands
in terms of staff qualifications, supervision,
information systems, and quality assurance
limit the capacity of institutions to adopt
programs as intended (Altschuler et al., 1999;
Greenwood, 2008; Guerra & Leaf, 2008). The
question that researchers must address is,
"How do we work within current institutional
demands in secure care?" and not, "Can we
work within current institutional demands in
secure care?" Leone and colleagues (2005)
advised researchers to expand the scope of
their investigations in secure care settings to
include intervention strategies that are
matched to youth needs, and determine how
to apply identified best practices in juvenile
Practical challenges and obstacles to
implementing evidence-based practices also
exist. For example, teacher training and
knowledge may affect teacher use of re-
search-based techniques regardless of student
characteristics. Researchers (Gagnon & Mac-
cini, 2007; Maccini & Gagnon, 2002; Maccini
& Gagnon, 2006) have reported that the
number of mathematics methods courses taken
by general and special education teachers is
significantly related to the number of research-
based instructional practices used by teachers.
Specific to juvenile corrections, many empir-
ically validated mathematics and reading
instructional approaches are infrequently or
never used in secure care due to a lack of
training (Maccini et al., 2008; Malmgren,
Gagnon, Melekoglu, & Cakiroglu, in press).
Interestingly, teachers also report that
certain strategies do not meet their students'
needs, despite the fact that these instructional
approaches have been proven effective.
Teachers in secure care reported rarely or
never using peer-mediated instruction, despite
research supporting its use with students with
learning and behavior problems (see Calhoon
& Fuchs, 2003; Xin, Jitendra, & Deatline-
Buchman, 2005). Malmgren et al. (in press)
also noted that teachers in secure care may not
consider the teaching of basic reading skills to
be within their purview as secondary educa-
tors. This restrictive approach to instruction
and student needs does not adequately take
into consideration that more than 30% of
youth in secure care reportedly read below a
basic level (Malmgren et al., 2009).
As noted throughout the previous discus-
sion, research clearly demonstrates that there
are effective instructional, behavioral, and
mental health strategies that can be applied
in secure care settings. However, interventions
may be ineffective or used infrequently for
many reasons, including failure to address
relevant contextual and training factors, insuf-
ficient treatment dosage or duration, or failure
to address the unique needs of individual
juveniles. Current limitations make clear the
need for a framework to guide the selection
and implementation of evidence-based ap-
proaches to instruction and behavior that are
at once responsive to characteristics of delin-
quent juveniles and to the secure context.
Specifically, Mulvey and Iselin (2008) suggest
that structured judgment is necessary pertain-
ing to (a) efficient and equitable screening at
intake, (b) decision making based on actuarial
and clinical information, and (c) implementa-
tion and use of data systems in order to make
effective choices regarding education and
treatment. These needs are made apparent by
the difficulties of obtaining prior student
Behavioral Disorders, 36 (1), 7-19
November 2010 /13
records during youth movement through the
juvenile justice system (Leone & Cutting,
2004). The haste in which students are
transferred makes additional disability evalua-
tions unlikely to occur, resulting in many
disabled youths being unidentified (Morris &
Thompson, 2008). Short-term detention facil-
ities in particular must often rely on juvenile
self-reports of past educational and special
educational services (Robinson & Rapport,
1999). Some researchers (Shelly-Tremblay,
O'Brien, & Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2007)
have suggested that widespread screening of
youth in juvenile corrections may be an
appropriate approach to developing interven-
tions based on student characteristics.
One model, Rtl, has received attention in
recent years for use with youth for whom
traditional identification and methods for select-
ing appropriate interventions have failed (Gresh-
am, 2007). In particular, Rtl has been suggested
as a framework for guiding data-based decisions
and for more adequately identifying student
characteristics that contribute to observed dis-
abilities such as E/BD and LD (Gresham, 2005;
Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2005). As previously
documented, youth with these disabilities are
overrepresented in secure care settings. Based
on a public health perspective, Rtl emphasizes
the application of evidence-based interventions
in a progressively intensive manner. Although
Rtl is still in the beginning stages of implemen-
tation, it has been a focus of recent training in 41
states (of 44 surveyed; Hoover, Baca, Wexler-
Love, & Saenz, 2008).
An Rtl approach has yet to be applied
empirically in secure care settings, yet its
promise for helping facilities develop program
structures with necessary education and be-
havior supports, services, and interventions
has not gone unrecognized. Myers and Farrell
(2008) recently proposed that a "public health
prevention logic remains applicable within the
juvenile justice system and a hierarchy of
primary, secondary, and tertiary interventions
can be envisioned even within juvenile justice
residential facilities" (p. 1162). Indeed, the
initial promise shown by implementation of
SWPBIS, a similarly tiered system framed
within a preventive perspective, has cast much
hope that such positive, proactive approaches
will benefit youth within the secure care
context (Gagnon et al., 2008). Applying the
Rtl and SWPBIS logic, universal facility-wide
procedures for screening and intervention are
recommended that include academics, behav-
ior, and mental health. Targeted secondary
supports, such as intensified instruction, voca-
tional and prevocational training, and sub-
stance abuse programs may then be selected
for smaller groups of youth. Tertiary level
intervention is reserved for youth in secure
care with significant academic, mental health,
and behavioral needs.
As noted throughout our discussion, the
multifarious characteristics of youth in secure
care require collaborative efforts across disci-
plines. Gagnon and Richards (2008, p. 40)
emphasize that "collaborative efforts should
include discussion of policy and practice,
methods for implementation, and accountabil-
ity for program effectiveness." Moreover,
cross-system evaluation of program fidelity
and ongoing staff training will increase the
likelihood of consistent implementation
(Young, 2004). The improvements in screen-
ing, identification, universal, secondary, and
tertiary supports, if coordinated across educa-
tion, corrections, and mental health, have
potential for improving the services of youth
in secure care. It is clear that more research is
needed to determine the applicability of
frameworks that base education and treatment
decisions on existing student characteristics in
secure care contexts. However, the logic of
coordinated, responsive approaches such as
Rtl for facilitating appropriate education and
mental health services is undeniable. The
challenge remains to optimize the use of
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Correspondence address: Joseph C. Gagnon,
Ph.D., University of Florida, Department of
Special Education, P.O. Box 117050, Gaines-
ville, FL 32611-7050 (352) 273-4262 Fax:
Initial Acceptance 2/11/10
Final Acceptance 6/11/10
Behavioral Disorders, 36 (1), 7-19
November 2010 /19