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February 20, 2019

Troubled Rikers school needs federal watchdog, activists charge

February 10, 2019
Principal Tonya Threadgill (center) visits one of the young adult inmates classes inside East River Academy on Rikers Island in June 2014. (Anthony DelMundo / New York Daily News)

Federal watchdogs should continue to monitor controversial and violence-plagued school programs for young inmates at Rikers Island, activists charge.

Since 1996, federal monitors have overseen educational programs at the city jail, to make sure teenage detainees are receiving legally mandated schooling, even while they’re incarcerated.

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The monitors’ most recent report, published in July, was meant to mark the end of the oversight but still found safety concerns and a lack of resources deprived young inmates their lessons.

In January, the program grabbed headlines after a spate of slashings kept students from getting to class, causing attendance rates to crater.

And in legal papers filed Feb. 1, lawyers for the Legal Aid Society responded to the federal monitor’s report, arguing that more oversight of the long-troubled jail is needed.

Specifically, Legal Aid attorneys claimed that Rikers watchdog Dr. Peter Leone should remain on the case for an additional two years because the jail is still denying young inmates an education.

“The court should continue the order and Dr. Leone’s monitoring functions because the City Defendants have yet to comply,” the legal brief states.

Leone didn’t return a call for comment and a Legal Aid spokesperson declined to elaborate on the group’s filing.

Problems with young inmates at Rikers Island go back decades.

In 1996, a group of 11 Rikers students filed a class action suit against the city for not providing them with basic schooling mandated by state and federal law.

The case is still ongoing while two sets of federal monitors have kept tabs on schools at the jail.

In 2002, Legal Aid lawyers joined the battle with a new suit making fresh arguments that the city failed to provide a proper education for teen inmates.

The city made sweeping changes to boost school options in the wake of the lawsuit, but problems persisted.

A “deep-seated culture of violence” against students at Rikers was uncovered by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a report issued in August 2014.

And Leone, has found the city was “inadequate and non-compliant” with earlier federal orders on inmate education.

A Daily News report in January revealed that attendance rates at East River Academy on Rikers Island dropped by half since the start of the current school year, falling to just 16% in December.

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Attendance bounced back up to 21% last month but it’s below the 36% attendance rate the school posted in September.

City records show an official tally of 12 slashings between September and December.

But an unofficial count kept by staffers shows that at least 19 knifings that have interrupted classes since September.

Department of Corrections Press Secretary Jason Kersten said Rikers officials are working to improve attendance.

“School enrollment for young adults in our custody is up, and we are committed to ensuring they are able to attend classes regularly,” Kersten said.

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