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Special attention to education

With her eye on at-risk youth, Candace Mulcahy hopes to curb education discrepancies in juvenile facilities.

Based on a 2004 census, 94,875 youth reside in 2,809 public and private juvenile facilities nationwide; of that number, 4,230 reside in New York. And Mulcahy, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education, explains, "Education is not a priority in these facilities; it's about security and safety." Many of these youth are nearly four years behind their peers when it comes to reading and math.

Mulcahy co-authored a study, published last year in Education and Treatment of Children. Detained and Committed Youth: Examining Differences in Achievement, Mental Health Needs, and Special Education Status investigated the relationship among mental health status, academic achievement, and special education status for over 500 boys in detention or commitment facilities. "We have researchers who look at mental health issues, and those who look at academic status, but no one is looking at the relationship between them," she says.

"Most kids end up in juvenile corrections for status offenses: cutting school, alcohol and drug possession or use, or for non-violent offenses," explains Mulcahy. "Once there, these students are placed in classes that pale in comparison to public school, often taught by unqualified teachers." But, because the number of students in these facilities is often below the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reporting requirement, they're not held accountable.

Compounding the issue is the prevalence of youth with disabilities in juvenile facilities. Mulcahy notes that in public schools, the prevalence rate hovers around 10 percent of the school-age population, while in juvenile facilities, it runs anywhere from 30-70 percent. "Youth with emotional and behavioral disorders have the worst outcomes by far," says Mulcahy. "We are failing our most needy, most vulnerable kids, even in the age of NCLB."

To help remedy this, Mulcahy is developing preventative interventions that will be applicable in juvenile facilities as well as public schools. Her research concentrates on improving academic performance as well as behavior management for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. "If we can teach students with emotional and behavioral disabilities math and reading, and teach them to do higher order thinking, maybe we can keep them engaged in school and improve their outcomes."

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Last Updated: 12/19/11