Juvenile correctional schools: Characteristics and approaches to curriculum
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Title: Juvenile correctional schools: Characteristics and approaches to curriculum
Series Title: Gagnon, J. C., Barber, B. R., Van Loan, C. L., & Leone, P. E. (2009). Juvenile correctional schools: Characteristics and approaches to curriculum. Education and Treatment of Children, 32, 673-696.
Physical Description: Journal Article
Creator: Gagnon, Joseph
Abstract: This study focused on school-level approaches to curriculum, as well as school, principal, and student characteristics in juvenile corrections (JC) schools for committed youth. A national random sample of 131 principals from these schools responded to a mail and on-line survey. No statistically significant differences existed between respondent and nonrespondent schools. Approximately 80% of schools were accredited by their State Department of Education. The primary role of JC schools was to help youth obtain a high school diploma, followed by preparing students for the General Educational Development (GED) test. Approximately 66% of JC schools used a state or local education agency curriculum, while the remainder provided a school-developed or individualized curriculum. More than 50% of respondents asserted that grade level expectations should not be expected of all youth with emotional/behavioral disorders or learning disabilities. Additional results, implications, and recommendations for future research are provided.
Acquisition: Collected for University of Florida's Institutional Repository by the UFIR Self-Submittal tool. Submitted by Joseph Gagnon.
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Full Text


Juvenile Correctional Schools: Characteristics
and Approaches to Curriculum

Joseph C. Gagnon

Brian R. Barber

Christopher Van Loan
University of Florida

Peter E. Leone
University of Maryland

This study focused on school-level approaches to curriculum, as well as school,
principal, and student characteristics in juvenile corrections (JC) schools for
committed youth. A national random sample of 131 principals from these
schools responded to a mail and on-line survey. No statistically significant
differences existed between respondent and nonrespondent schools.
Approximately 80% of schools were accredited by their State Department of
Education. The primary role of JC schools was to help youth obtain a high
school diploma, followed by preparing students for the General Educational
Development (GED) test. Approximately 66% of JC schools used a state or
local education agency curriculum, while the remainder provided a school-
developed or individualized curriculum. More than 50% of respondents
asserted that grade level expectations should not be expected of all youth with
emotional/behavioral disorders or learning disabilities. Additional results,
implications, and recommendations for future research are provided.

A appropriate educational services for incarcerated youth have long
been recognized as an important element of successful transition
into society (Foley, 2001; Nelson, Leone, & Rutherford, 2004). However,
the definition of appropriate educational services for these youth is
highly debated. Basic educational entitlements noted in the No Child
Left Behind Act (2002) include providing all youth with a "fair, equal,
and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education" (Sec.
101). The provision of a high quality education is a right of youth with
and without disabilities in juvenile corrections (JC) schools. For youth
with disabilities, the entitlement to education is further supported in
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA,

Correspondence to Joseph Calvin Gagnon, Ph.D., University of Florida, Department of
Special Education, P.O. Box 117050, Gainesville, FL 32611-7050; e-mail: jgagnon@coe.

Pages 673-696

GAGNON et al.

2004); this legislation requires that services be designed and delivered
to provide access to and progress in the general education curriculum
(Cortiella, 2006). The underlying assumption is that providing all
students with access to the general education curriculum will prepare
students for life after exiting school (National Center on Secondary
Education and Transition, 2004).
However, for some professionals, provisions within NCLB
(2002) and IDEA (2004) that require access to the general education
curriculum seemingly run counter to IDEA regulations that call for
individualized educational experiences for youth with disabilities
(Hardman & Dawson, 2008). IDEA states the need "to ensure that
all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropri-
ate public education that emphasizes special education and related
services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for
further education, employment, and independent living" (2004, P. L.
108-446 Sec. 682 (d)(1)(A)). Preparations for future success and inte-
gration into society and access to the general education curriculum
are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, youth with disabilities
who graduate with a diploma are more likely to be employed full time
and live above the poverty level (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001). Yet,
many well-respected experts also consider that an appropriate educa-
tion for youth with and without disabilities in JC schools should in-
clude greater individualization and consist of both access to the gen-
eral education curriculum, as well as a more functional curriculum
that includes pre-vocational and vocational training, paid work expe-
rience, and General Educational Development (GED) test preparation
(Carter, Lane, Pierson, & Glasser, 2006; Lane & Carter, 2006; Nelson et
al., 2004; Rutherford, Quinn, Leone, Garfinkel, & Nelson, 2002).
The dilemma of access to the general education curriculum ver-
sus greater individualization in JC schools is complicated by the char-
acteristics and historical features of these secure education settings. In
general, a lack of oversight has lead to a situation in which JC schools
have one of the worst records of adhering to federal special education
requirements (Browne, 2003; Coffey & Gemignani, 1994; Leone, 1994).
To date, the National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile
Justice (EDJJ, 2009) has documented 44 class action lawsuits related to
inadequate provision of special education services in both juvenile and
adult corrections. The lack of the most basic levels of educational and
special education services makes it difficult to understand whether JC
school administrators willingly disregard the law or design programs
and deliver services on the basis of faulty information about entitle-
ments, the unique attributes of the setting, or the characteristics of the
students. It is also unclear if JC schools for committed youth operate
under the guidance of larger organizations. For example, no national


information is available concerning the extent to which these schools
are accredited or licensed by their State Departments of Education
(DOE) or the American Correctional Association (ACA). Katsiyan-
nis (1993) reported that accreditation may make adherence to federal
polices more likely. Moreover, accredited schools may be less likely
to develop their own curriculum or provide an individualized cur-
riculum that is not aligned with state assessments. Similarly, public
schools that accept federal funds and adhere to NCLB (2002) may be
more likely to rely on a district or state curriculum than to develop a
unique school or individualized curriculum (Council for Exceptional
Children, 2007). Presently, however, no data exist to identify whether
private or non-accredited JC school administrations exert greater in-
dependence with regard to curriculum in their school.
If JC schools attempt to adhere to NCLB (2002) and IDEA (2004),
there may be other institutional issues that are barriers to providing
appropriate education services to youth. Within the current system
of accountability, student success necessitates consistency between
curriculum and required state assessments (Roach, Niebling, & Kurz,
2008). Issues may exist that further hinder alignment of curriculum
with state assessments, such as a lack of: (a) professional development
on the alignment of curriculum and state assessments; (b) supervi-
sion of schools; or (c) communication with the local education agency
(LEA) and State Education Agency (SEA). Also, the ways in which JC
school personnel view their roles for assisting youth educationally are
important considerations. For example, administrator views concern-
ing the primary responsibility of their school and whether grade level
expectations should apply to all youth with disabilities can greatly
affect educational offerings. Also, JC schools that emphasize GED test
preparation or vocational training may exhibit more curricular au-
tonomy and develop their own school curriculum. At present, there
is no information on these key curriculum-related topics regarding JC
schools for committed youth.
In addition to school characteristics, it is also clear that youth in
JC schools have unique and significant needs that may require greater
individualization or alternative curricular paths. For example, more
than one-third of youth in juvenile corrections are classified with a
disability (Quinn, Rutherford, Leone, Osher, & Poirier, 2005). In con-
trast, about 12% of the general student population in public schools
is classified with a disability (Stizek, Pittsonberger, Riordan, Lyter,
& Orlofsky, 2007). Moreover, JC youth with and without disabili-
ties rarely return to high school, stay in school, and earn a diploma
upon exit from a JC school (Griller-Clark, Rutherford, & Quinn, 2004;
Haberman & Quinn, 1986; LeBlanc & Pfannenstiel, 1991; Todis, Bul-
lis, Waintrup, Schultz, & D'Ambrosio, 2001; Webb & Maddox, 1986).

GAGNON et al.

Consequently, some researchers (e.g., Platt, Casey, & Faessel, 2006)
view the emphasis on student success on state tests as restrictive of
student access to alternative, and potentially more meaningful educa-
tional experiences.
A short length of enrollment may further complicate curricular
decisions, as students may not be in a JC school for sufficient time
to earn academic credits. In juvenile detention facilities, for example,
youth may be enrolled only for a week to several months (Austin,
Johnson, & Weitzer, 2005). Additionally, length of enrollment issues
may disproportionally affect certain groups of students. There is evi-
dence that youth with disabilities and minority youth are incarcer-
ated for longer periods of time than their peers (Muller, 2005; National
Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2007). For students who are com-
mitted to secure care for extended periods of time, school curricular
policies that emphasize one educational path over another (e.g., GED
test preparation versus access to the general education curriculum)
may have long lasting consequences. Clearly, there is a need for up-
to-date information concerning leadership, policies and practices, as
well as student characteristics in JC schools for committed youth.
Purpose & Research Questions
The purpose of this study was to investigate school-level curric-
ulum policies and practices in private and public JC schools for com-
mitted youth, as well as to provide a broad context of school, student,
and principal characteristics. The results represent one component of
a larger national survey of JC schools that also investigated school-lev-
el assessment and accountability policies and practices (see Gagnon,
Haydon, & Maccini, in press for a review of these results). The current
study addressed the following questions: (a) what are the principal,
school, and student characteristics? (b) how do student characteristics
relate to length of enrollment? (c) what are the primary responsibili-
ties of the school? (d) what are the curriculum policies, practices, and
philosophies and how do they compare across school characteristics?
Sample and Participant Selection
In an attempt to survey a representative sample of juvenile cor-
rections schools in the United States, we used the most comprehensive
database available: The 2003 Directory of Adult and Juvenile Correctional
Departments, Institutions, Agencies, and Probation and Parole Authorities
(American Correctional Association, 2003). A comprehensive database
decreases the likelihood of coverage error (Wei Wei, 2003) and im-
proves the generalizability of the findings. Using facility descriptions


enabled us to identify an appropriate sample from the universe of all
JC school programs.
We used three criteria to include facilities in our sample: (a) the
program had to serve primarily committed/adjudicated youth (court
commitment); (b) the facility had to be identified as close custody/
secure; and (c) provision of educational services had to be on-site.
Further, the variations witnessed in JC schools for committed youth
required delineation of specific programs that would not apply. Pro-
grams that did not qualify included: (a) community corrections (i.e.,
not a secure care facility); (b) probation; (c) parole; (d) detention; (e)
accountability camps; (f) facilities with no education component; (g)
settings with incomplete or inaccurate facility information in the da-
tabase; and (h) programs that had been closed or not yet open. As a
secondary check of the universe, state websites were reviewed. An
additional 63 facilities were identified and individually called to as-
sess whether they met the criteria for inclusion in the universe. Twelve
such programs were included based on phone call verification.
A total of 483 schools met criteria for inclusion in the study. To
obtain accurate national data and stay within budget, 400 of the quali-
fying schools were randomly selected to participate in the study. To
reduce sampling error, the first page of each survey provided par-
ticipants with two questions to verify that they were eligible for the
study. The questions were: (a) Is your school a juvenile correctional
school for committed youth? and (b) Does your school include stu-
dents in any of grades 7-12? Despite the multi-stage screening process
to identify JC schools that were eligible for the study, 17 schools were
excluded from the database upon return of the surveys due to the fol-
lowing issues: (a) not a JC school (n = 14); (b) facility closed (n = 2); and
(c) no grades 7-12 (n = 1). Thus, the total sample size used for analyses
was 383.
The current survey of JC school principals identified respondent,
school, and student characteristics, as well as curriculum philosophies,
practices, and policies (the survey is available from the authors upon
Specific procedures were followed to ensure survey reliability
and validity. Expressly, all surveys were consistently formatted and
this consistency was maintained in both hard copy and online formats
(Fink, 1995). Next, a codebook was used throughout data entry in or-
der to ensure constancy of decision-making (Litwin, 1995). Reliability
checks were conducted on data entered for 30% (n = 39) of the 131
returned surveys. Reliability was calculated by dividing the number
of agreements by the number of agreements and disagreements and

GAGNON et al.

multiplying by 100%. Reliability for data entry was 99.97%.
A variety of methods were used to increase the validity of the
survey instrument. Initially, research questions were developed based
on a review of literature, consideration of current educational reform,
personal expertise, and discussion with experts in the field of special
education. Next, an advisory group reviewed and made recommen-
dations regarding the survey and study methodology. Additionally,
principal focus groups commented on the format and content of the
surveys. The survey was modified based on the advisory group and
focus group feedback.
Data Collection
Data were collected between 2004 and 2005, following the pas-
sage of the IDEA (2004). Specific procedures were employed to in-
crease response rates and minimize non-response error, including: (a)
multiple contacts and reminders to participants (i.e., an introductory
letter, five survey mailings, follow-up phone calls beginning after the
second mailing); (b) directions for completing the survey; (c) multiple
ways for respondents to complete the survey (e.g., hard copy, online);
(d) government sponsorship was identified on all project documents;
and (e) incentive provided at the time of the first survey mailing (i.e.,
each survey in the first mailing included a two dollar bill). Assurance
of confidentiality and anonymity to respondents was also provided
(Bourque & Fielder, 1995).
Respondents and Non-respondents
One hundred and twenty-one principals returned hard copies
of surveys and another ten completed the survey online, providing
a 34.22% (n = 131) response rate. Comparisons between respondents
and non-respondents were conducted at the school level using infor-
mation available from the 2003 Directory of Adult and Juvenile Correc-
tional Departments, Institutions, Agencies, and Probation and Parole Au-
thorities (American Correctional Association, 2003) and state websites.
Comparisons across U.S. Census Bureau region, security level (i.e.,
maximum, medium, medium/maximum, minimum, multiple), con-
tract (i.e., private company) or non-contract, and gender served (i.e.,
male, female, co-gender) revealed no significant differences for any of
the comparisons.
Geographic representation by responding principals included
41 states and all U.S. census regions (n = 131): Midwest (n = 31); North-
east (n = 19); South (n = 60); and West (n = 21). Both contracted facili-
ties (n = 32) and non-contracted facilities (n = 99) were represented in
the sample. Security level was available for 109 JC schools. Each secu-
rity level was represented in the sample 38 maximum; 34 medium; 6


combination medium/maximum; 19 minimum; 12 multiple levels of
security. With regard to gender served, information was available for
125 facilities: 94 facilities were single gender (82 male-only, 12 female-
only), and 31 facilities served both genders.
Data Analysis
Data analyses included descriptive statistics appropriate for
each of the six research questions, t-tests comparing group means,
and effect sizes (Cohen's d) for each t-test. Where the Levene's test for
equality of variances. was less than p = .05, equal variances were not
assumed. Nonparametric statistics (chi-square tests) comparing pro-
portions were also included, as well as effect sizes (Coefficient phi) for
these comparisons. In cases where more than 20% of the cells had an
expected value less than 5 or the minimum expected frequency was
less than one, rows or columns were collapsed, if appropriate (e.g.,
private non-profit and for-profit schools) (NoruSis, 2007). If it was not
possible or logical to combine certain cells, the Fisher's Exact Test was
used to calculate the effect size. Additionally, data for t-test analyses
included categorizing the average length of student stay into two cat-
egories (i.e., less than one year; one year or greater). For all analyses, a
common alpha was set at .05.
Five survey questions provided an opportunity for respondents
to write in an Other response. Analysis of these open-ended responses
was based on the following multiple-step process (Goetz & LeCompte,
1984; Lincoln & Guba, 1985): (a) participant responses were catego-
rized and coded independently by the second and third authors; (b)
the same authors discussed areas of convergence and divergence, and
categories were adjusted, added, or deleted, as needed; (c) each au-
thor recorded the data; and (d) a final discussion and calculation of
reliability was completed. Coding reliability was determined for all
responses so as to ensure that codes were assigned correctly to catego-
ries. The total number of responses per code, and the total number of
participants who had responses in similar categories were calculated;
the resultant reliability for the open-ended responses was 100%.
Respondent Characteristics
Respondent characteristics are noted in Table 1. Principals were
asked to list all education certifications they held. Most (n = 101) prin-
cipals held certification as a principal/administrator/supervisor. Ad-
ditionally, principals noted the following Other responses: counseling
(n = 5), elective courses (n = 2), program specialist (n = 2), English as a
second language (n = 1), and speech pathologist (n = 1). No significant

GAGNON et al.

Table 1
Respondent Characteristics

Characteristics No. (%)
Female 55 (42.3)
Male 75 (57.7)
Educational Level
Undergraduate 25 (19.8)
Graduate 101 (80.2)
Education Certifications
None 3 (--)
Principal, Administrator, or 101 (--)
Special Education Teacher of 24 (--)
Students with EBD or LD
Special Education Teacher, 28 (--)
General or Cross Categorical
Elementary Teacher 25 (--)
Secondary Teacher 59 (--)
School Psychologist 2 (--)
Other 10(--)
Note: * = Total number may not be consistent with the total number of respondents
as some principals did not answer every question; -- = Percent could not be calculated
because question asks respondents to "choose all that apply"

differences were noted for chi-square analysis of principal educational
level across organizational structure (i.e., public and private non- and
for-profit), security level (i.e., minimum, medium/maximum), or type
of facility (i.e., commitment, combined commitment and detention).
School Characteristics
Principals reported on whether or not their school was: (a) in a
commitment or combined detention/commitment facility; (b) public
or private; (c) SEA accredited; and (d) ACA accredited. As reported in
Table 2, most schools were in commitment facilities (n = 90, 70.2%), 86
(78.2%) were administered by local public schools, 104 (81.2%) were
accredited by their SEA, and about half (n = 57, 49.6%) were accredited
by the ACA. Comparisons could not be conducted for either type of


school or organizational structure across accreditation by the SEA due
to small cell size.
Student Characteristics
Principals reported on several student characteristics. How-
ever, not all respondents answered every question concerning the

Table 2
School Level Characteristics

Characteristics No. (%)
Type of Facility
Commitment 90 (72.0%)
Detention and Commitment 35 (28.0%)
School's Organizational Structure
Public School 86 (78.2%)
Private School (non and for profit) 24 (21.8%)
School Accredited by the State Department of Education

Yes 104 (81.2%)
No 13 (10.2%)
No System for Accreditation 11 (8.6%)
School Accredited by the American Correctional
Yes 57 (49.6%)
No 58 (50.4%)

number of students in certain categories. For example, the total for all
ethnic groups does not equal the total number of students that were
detained or committed. A total of 12,381(89.76%) male students and
1,413 female (10.24%) students were enrolled in responding schools.
In contrast, responding principals reported that 13,203 committed and
2,006 detained students were enrolled. Concerning student special
education classification and ethnicity, principals were asked to pro-
vide the total number of students within each disability classification.
The sum of each disability category was calculated. To obtain a broad
understanding of the percentages of students with disabilities, each
percentage was calculated based on the question that asked for the
total number of detained and committed students. Using this as the
total student population and the sum of students in each disability

GAGNON et al.

classification, 38.15% of youth represented in the facilities were classi-
fied with a disability. Following, are sums of students with disabilities
and ethnicities for all responding schools with the number of respond-
ing principals after each sum. A total of 2,584 students with LD (n =
115) were noted by respondents. Also, 2,626 were EBD (n = 111), 284
were classified with mental retardation (n = 89), and 504 had another
special education label (n = 84). Concerning ethnicity, 1,604 students
were Hispanic (n = 99), 4,356 were African American (n = 105), 147
were Asian/Pacific Islander (n = 75), 4,926 were Caucasian (n = 110),
404 were Native American/American Indian (n = 75), and 193 were bi-
racial (n = 193). Also, the average length of enrollment for committed
students was 9.37 months (SD = 6.08).
Student differences across school length of stay. T-test results of stu-
dent characteristics and average length of enrollment indicate that
statistical significance existed across the student disability classifica-
tion of EBD (t(54) = -2.862, p = .006, ES = .78), African American ethnic-
ity (t(30) = -2.136, p = .041, ES = .78), and person offense (t(19) = -2.230,
p = .038, ES = 1.02), and average length of enrollment (see Table 3).
Students with EBD, African American students and students commit-
ting person offenses were statistically significantly more likely to be
enrolled for more than one year.
Curriculum Policies, Practices, and Philosophies
Principals responded to several questions concerning their
schools' approach to curriculum. As noted in Table 4, principals re-
ported their school's primary emphasis as helping students obtain a
high school diploma (n = 80 marked high school diploma as first pri-
ority), followed by a GED (n = 61 marked GED as second priority).
Some principals also reported an Other primary emphasis. These re-
sponses included remediation (n = 6), college preparation (n = 1), more
than one of the choices provided (n = 4), help student with individual
needs (n = 6), help students with transition/reentry to public school (n
= 2), treatment (n = 1), and citizenship (n = 1).
Respondents noted the extent to which curriculum and supports
aligned with state assessments (see Table 5). Principals commonly re-
ported that they used an SEA or LEA curriculum (n = 73, 68.2%), and
that their school's math curriculum (n = 95, 73.6%), reading curricu-
lum (n = 96, 74.4%), and instructional materials (n = 89, 68.5%) were
aligned with state assessments to a great extent. However, more than
half of principals (n = 67, 54.5%) also noted that grade level expecta-
tions should not apply to every student with EBD or LD. Respondents
most commonly reported that their schools were supervised to a great
extent to ensure alignment with curriculum and state assessments (n =
80, 61.5%), as well as offered professional development to a great extent


Table 3
Student Characteristics and Average Length of Enrollment

Mean Rating Significance

Characteristics Less than 1 year or df t p ES
1 year more
Specific 20.18 28.16 47 -1.030 .308 .30
Emotional/ 18.84 36.84 54 -2.862 .006 .78
Mental 2.79 4.40 39 -1.492 .144 .48
Other Special 5.43 7.40 74 -.874 .385 .20
Ethnic Group
Hispanic 14.21 22.76 30 -.918 .366 .34
African 34.53 62.54 30 -2.136 .041 .78
Asian/Pacific 1.51 2.29 28 -.595 .557 .22
Caucasian 39.36 53.35 41 -1.286 .206. .40
Native 2.52 2.91 59 -.241 .811 .06
Biracial 2.33 2.86 40 -.494 .624 .16
Percent Students
Committed for
Certain Offenses*
Delinquency 46.20 32.82 25 1.497 .147 .60
Person 31.34 43.90 19 -2.230 .038 1.02
Violent 27.16 33.82 29 -1.140 .263 .42
Status 24.86 17.00 21 1.573 .131 .42
Note: ES = Cohen's d; * = percentages converted to arcsin.

GAGNON et al.

Table 4
Primary Responsibility

Characteristics Ranking No.

1 2 3 4
School's Primary Responsibilities for
Students With EBD or LD:

Help Students Earn a High School 80 22 16 3
Diploma 80 22 16 3
Help Student's Earn a GED 22 61 28 4
Help Students with Vocational
Training 18 31 61 3
Other: 14 1 2 6
Note: 1 = Most important; 4 = Least important.

to ensure that alignment (n = 80, 61.5%). Most principals reported that
communication with the LEA/SEA (50, 38.8%) was a minor barrier
(i.e., very little) to alignment of curriculum and state assessment.
In addition to the frequencies and percent noted in Table 5,
mean scores and SD were also calculated on a four-point scale (1 = not
at all; 4 = to a great extent) for the extent to which curriculum and sup-
ports aligned with state assessments. On average, principals reported
that math curriculum (n = 126; X =3.71; SD = .57), reading curriculum
(n = 126; X = 3.72; SD = .55), and school instructional materials (n =
128; X = 3.62; SD = .65) were highly aligned with state assessments. Re-
spondents also noted the extent to which other factors existed to en-
sure alignment of curriculum and state assessment, including school
supervision (n = 129; X = 3.51; SD = .72), and teacher/principal profes-
sional development (n = 130; X = 3.51; SD = .70). In addition, princi-
pals noted the extent to which communication between school and
LEA/SEA was a barrier to aligning curriculum and state assessments.
Specifically, communication between school and LEA/SEA (n = 123; X
= 2.24; SD = .97) was viewed as providing relatively little obstruction
to aligning school curriculum and state assessments.
Curriculum policies, practices, and philosophies could not be
compared across school characteristics (e.g., school type, school orga-
nizational structure, accreditation by SEA) due to inadequate cell size.
As noted, respondents overwhelmingly reported that their school was
public, accredited by the SEA, and in a commitment facility.


The current investigation provides the first national picture of JC
school-level approaches to curriculum and extends what is known re-
garding school, principal and student characteristics that may impact
curriculum decisions in these settings (see Baltodano, Harris, & Ruth-
erford, 2005; Quinn et al., 2005). While researchers (Nelson et al., 2004)
highlight the necessity of providing appropriate educational services
that include a range of curricular options, the purview of legislative
trends continues to emphasize improved access to a rigorous edu-
cation for all students, including those with special needs (Gagnon,
2008). Results reported here reveal significant variability in how JC
schools for committed youth are approaching curriculum. Three areas
associated with JC school curriculum require additional discussion:
(a) principal philosophies and student characteristics; (b) school cur-
ricular supports and practices; and (c) policies promoting the align-
ment of school curriculum with state assessment.
Principal Philosophies and Student Characteristics
In the current study a pervasive belief among JC principals was
that (a) the primary responsibility of their facility is to help students
earn a high school diploma, with a secondary emphasis being to help
students earn a GED, and that (b) grade level expectations should not
apply to all students with LD and EBD in their schools. Respondents
perceived responsibility for helping students to earn a high school
diploma or GED is in concert with the priorities noted by SEA-level
authorities (see Gagnon, 2008). However, the widely held belief that
grade-level expectations should not apply to all students with LD and
EBD in JC settings indicates philosophical disagreement about how to
best ensure a consistent and rigorous curriculum is offered to youth
with disabilities. Moreover, the importance of providing support to
students.to pass the GED test is an interesting emphasis, which may
be particularly useful for students in JC schools, but is contrary to
provisions within NCLB (2002) and IDEA (2004) that promote access
to a rigorous general education curriculum.
Reported student characteristics indicate potentially confound-
ing issues that may shape the philosophies and curriculum deci-
sions of JC principals. Similar to the results of previous research (see
Quinn et al. 2005), this study revealed special education prevalence
rates (38.15%) that are disproportionate when compared to students
with disabilities in public school (12%; Stizek, Pittsonberger, Riordan,
Lyter, & Orlofsky, 2007). Further, in the current study students with
EBD and LD comprised an overwhelming majority of the students
with disabilities. Given the disproportionate numbers of youth with

GAGNON et al.

Table 5
Curriculum Policies, Practices, and Philosophies


No. (%)

School's Curricula Policy
LEA Approved Curriculum
State Curriculum 14 (13.1%)
School-Developed Curriculum 59 (55.1%)
Use of Student IEPs to Determine 12 (11.2%)
Curriculum 11 (10.3%)
Individualize Each Student's Curriculum 7 (6.6%)
(Not based on IEP) 1 (.9%)
Done Not Have Policy 0 (0%)
Don't Know 3 (2.8%)
Should Grade Level Expectations Apply to
Every Student with EBD or LD? 56 (45.5%)
Yes 67 (54.5%)
Math Curriculum Aligned with State Assessments
Not at all 1 (.8)
Very Little 4 (3.1)
Somewhat 26 (20.2)
To a Great Extent 95 (73.6)
Don't Know 3 (2.3)
Reading Curriculum Aligned with State
Not at all 1 (.8)
Very Little 3 (2.3)
Somewhat 26 (20.2)
To a Great Extent 96 (74.4)
Don't Know 3 (2.3)
School's Instructional Materials Aligned with
State Assessments
Not at all 2(1.5)
Very Little 6 (4.6)
Somewhat 31 (23.9)
To a Great Extent 89 (68.5)
Don't Know 2 (1.5)
School Supervised to Ensure Curriculum
Aligned with State Assessments
Not at all 3 (2.3)
Very Little 8 (6.2)
Somewhat 38 (29.2)
To a Great Extent 80 (61.5)
Don't Know 1 (.8)


Table 5
Characteristics No. (%)
Teacher/Principals Provided Professional Development
to Ensure Curriculum Aligned with State Assessments 1 (.8)
Not at all 12 (9.2)
Very Little 37 (28.5)
Somewhat 80 (61.5)
To a Great Extent 0 (0)
Don't Know
Communication between Schools and LEA/State is a
Barrier to Alignment with State Assessments 30 (23.2)
Not at all 50 (38.8)
Very Little 27 (20.9)
Somewhat 16 (12.4)
To a Great Extent 6 (4.7)
Don't Know

disabilities and EBD and LD in particular, it is somewhat surprising
that responding principals overwhelmingly reported an emphasis on
helping students attain a high school diploma and place little empha-
sis on vocational education. Generally, alternative pathways to educa-
tion and training of youth with disabilities have shown promise. For
example, for youth with EBD in public schools, generic and occupa-
tionally specific career and technical education and on-the-job-train-
ing have been related to lower dropout rates (Corbett, Clark, & Blank,
2002). Moreover, Corbett and colleagues noted that these programs
related to higher post-school earnings. Specifically concerning incar-
cerated youth, those students who completed vocational training or a
GED program while confined were twice as likely to be employed six
months after their release (Black, Brush, Grow, Hawes, Henry, & Hin-
ke, 1996). Yet, while some researchers support the utility of multiple
pathways to high school graduation for youth with EBD (Wagner &
Davis, 2006), it is unclear whether national trends and federal law will
continue to deemphasize the role of approaches such as vocational
training and GED test preparation, or differentiate policies based on
the unique student population in JC schools.
Another student characteristic that may inform the philosophies
reported by JC school principals is student length of stay. Respond-
ing principals reported an average length of stay for committed youth
of more than nine months, or one full academic year. The impact of
this enrollment period on principal's perceptions of curriculum re-
sponsibilities requires additional investigation. What is certain is that

GAGNON et al.

students are typically enrolled for a length of time that allows for sig-
nificant progress within the general education curriculum, attainment
of vocational competencies, and preparation for the GED test. It is also
clear that certain groups of students may be notably and dispropor-
tionately affected by the curriculum decisions made in JC schools, giv-
en their longer enrollment. In the current survey, students with EBD,
as well African American students and those who are committed for
offenses against persons have significantly longer stays that often are
in excess of an academic year. For these students a school's approach
to curriculum is particularly critical, as an emphasis on one approach,
such as GED test preparation, may profoundly affect their opportu-
nity to earn a high school diploma.
Additionally, other student variables require consideration as
they may have an impact on curriculum policies and practices. For
example, youth in JC schools may have few academic credits and low
grade point averages that make graduation with a diploma highly un-
likely (Major, Chester, McEntire, Waldo, & Blomberg, 2002). Future
research should address the effect of student credit hours on curricu-
lar options, as well as identification of the point at which youth are
offered an opportunity to learn a trade or prepare for the GED test,
rather than pursue a high school diploma. Longitudinal research is
needed on the longterm outcomes of these various curricular policies
and practices.
School Curriculum Supports and Practices
In order for JC schools to provide a curriculum that supports
their primary priority of helping students attain a high school diplo-
ma, certain practices are vital. First, leadership from school principals
is essential. Encouragingly, JC principals possessed levels of educa-
tion and experience that matched or exceeded that of their peers in
public schools (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). The alignment of
instructional materials, as well as mathematics and reading curricula
are also necessary to ensure student access to the general education
curriculum in order for them to pass state assessments, and ultimately
progress toward a high school diploma. However, about one-third of
principals noted that instructional materials were only somewhat, very
little, or not at all aligned with state assessments. Moreover, approxi-
mately one-fourth reported similar levels of alignment with state as-
sessments for reading and mathematics curriculum.
In.addition to supports, specific practices are also important to
promote student advancement toward a diploma. However, over one-
third of respondents noted that they were somewhat, very little, or not
at all supervised to ensure curriculum alignment with state assess-
ments, or provided professional development to promote curriculum


alignment with state assessments. The current results suggest that
while smaller factions of administrators indicate these factors to be
problematic, it is important to further examine how the absence of
certain supports and practices may influence curricular decisions.
Other difficulties may also impact curricular decision and op-
tions available to students. For example, security concerns may be a
significant roadblock with regard to availability of vocational course-
work. However, comprehensive vocational education programs are
available within some secure care facilities. For example, Gagnon
and Richards (2008) described the approach taken by North Carolina
where students are provided a choice of career pathways. Youth iden-
tify a specific career and are then supplied with and follow a list of the
necessary coursework, work-based opportunities, options for postsec-
ondary training and education, and career options. Still, additional
research is needed to identify significant barriers to and factors that
promote implementation of vocational programming in JC schools,
particularly for those schools in facilities with higher security levels.
Curriculum Policies
In the current study, two key results were noted concerning ac-
creditation and the basis of curriculum. First, over 80% of JC schools
were accredited by their state DOE and nearly 50% were accredited
by the ACA. Second, approximately 68% of JC administrators in the
current study identified their school's reliance upon'SEA and LEA ap-
proved curricula. Although most schools reported being accredited
by their SEA, the fact that more than one-third of these schools are not
reliant upon SEA or LEA approved curricula suggests that state ac-
creditation process may have relatively little.effect on curriculum pol-
icies in some JC schools, as these schools exert significant autonomy
concerning curriculum decisions. However, it is also possible that a
lack of clarity and specific guidance from federal and state authorities
contribute to JC principal's challenge to balance student needs with
potentially competing demands for access to the general education
curriculum (Gagnon, 2008). Researchers (Muller, 2006a) reported that
critical factors for promoting student success and maintaining con-
sistency across programs include leadership from the SEA, as well
as federal mandates that provide appropriate guidance to JC schools.
Future inquiry should focus on JC school administrator views con-
cerning the applicability of federal and state policies to JC schools and
recommended adjustments to current policies.
Also evident is the need for information that identifies specific re-
quirements and procedures for SEA and ACA accreditation and moni-
toring. The issue of SEA supervision is particularly relevant given the
high percentage of JC schools that are accredited by their state DOE.

GAGNON et al.

In fact, forty SEA officials reported conducting monitoring activities
in JC schools within their state (Muller, 2006b). However, variability
in understanding of the terms monitoring and accreditation may impact
school oversight. For example, in some jurisdictions, accreditation.by
the state department of education may be more consistent with licens-
ing, or approval to operate a school in a correctional facility. In other
states, accreditation may signal adherence to a state's standards and
curriculum or may signal accreditation by an independent organiza-
tion such as North Central Association of Colleges and Schools that
primarily accredits colleges and secondary schools but also accred-
its schools in correctional facilities. Future research should address
how accredited schools are formatively and summatively evaluated
and held accountable for maintaining adherence to accreditation stan-
dards. Moreover, the extent to which SEA officials are involved with
JC schools may also relate to whether schools are located in federal,
state, or county facilities. Clearly, several issues require additional re-
search and clarification of the relationship between the SEA and JC
Limitations to the current study exist. First, the 34.22% response
rate is lower than the 50% commonly accepted for mail surveys (Weis-
berg, Krosnick, & Bowen, 1989). However, there were no statistically
significant differences at the school level between respondents and
non-respondents. Second, the percentage of youth with disabilities
and the sum of students in specific disability classifications should
be interpreted with caution. Both the percentage of students with dis-
abilities and sums of students in specific disability categories may be
affected by differences in state level disability definitions (e.g., the use
of emotional and behavior disorders versus emotional disturbances).
Moreover, in order to obtain the total percentage of students with dis-
abilities that were represented in responding JC schools, it was neces-
sary to use the total number of students reported for a separate ques-
tion (i.e., total number of detained and committed youth). As some
respondents did not answer every question, percentages calculated
indicate only a broad estimate of the percentage of students with dis-
Another limitation relates to the lack of a full psychometric
evaluation of the current survey. Although some steps were taken
ensure content validity for items (e.g., focus groups, expert consul-
tants, review of the literature), item response models that would pro-
vide information regarding response-construct relations, and provide
evidence of measurement equivalence for the multiple forms were not


undertaken to ensure that item characteristics sufficiently described
the constructs of interest. Although such models are typical for scale
development, item response models have been applied to exploratory
survey research (Lavrakas, 2008) and provide important information
regarding item performance for different levels indicated by respon-
dents on a construct. Additionally, protesting methods that allow for
measurement of reliability (e.g., test-retest) and troubleshooting of
unit- and item-nonresponse were not undertaken. Although the au-
thors attempted to follow principles set forth by Dillman, Smyth, and
Christian (2008) for survey item development and the elimination of
response bias, the effects of such considerations as question skip pat-
terns, ordering (primacy and recency) effects, and social desirability
bias are not known for the current survey. However, while the above
limitations remain potentially significant for interpretation, post-hoc
analyses of response rates, item nonresponse, and response distribu-
tions revealed adequate variability and there were no significant indi-
cations of abnormal response patterns or unreliability/biasing effects
for the sample. Thus, while pilot and psychometric testing are critical
procedures for survey research, their omission had limited impact on
the results of the current study.
A final limitation relates to the level of detail possible from sur-
vey research. However, data from the current study supply an initial
picture of curricular policies, practices, and philosophies, as well as
characteristics of schools, principals, and students in JC schools for
committed youth. Scientific social surveys, such as the current study,
provide a significant source of data on which policy and practice deci-
sions can be based (O'Muircheartaigh, 2008).
Final Thoughts
The controversy of curriculum individualization versus access
to a general education curriculum for all students remains a signifi-
cant debate among policymakers and academics (Gagnon, Van Loan,
& Barber, 2009). It is evident from the current study that principals in
JC schools for committed youth across the U.S. vary in their interpre-
tations of the most appropriate educational path for youth with and
without disabilities in this setting. The present investigation offers the
first national look at these schools and sets the stage for an in-depth
conversation and future research concerning the appropriate appli-
cation of NCLB (2002) and IDEA (2004) to the troubled youth in JC
schools, many of whom have EBD or LD. Moreover, questions arise
concerning the possible need to modify components of federal law,
as well as oversight of these schools to ensure students are provided
the appropriate education to which they are entitled. Finally, it is clear

GAGNON et al.

that a considerable percentage of principals feel unsupported and that
practices are not in place for them to align curriculum with state as-
If we expect that high quality education will be provided to all
students, including those served in secure care facilities, we must con-
tinue to pursue an understanding of these schools, the students, and
issues that affect JC school-level curricular policies and practices.


This research was funded by Grant #H324C030043 U.S. Depart-
ment of Education, Office of Special Education & Rehabilitative Ser-
vices (OSERS)

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