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Reading Problems and Juvenile Delinquency
by Peter W. D. Wright

Presented at the World Congress on Dyslexia,
Sponsored by The Orton Society in cooperation with
The Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota
November 9, 1974

Print this page


I am not an expert on reading problems. I have had experience with reading problems and juvenile delinquency. I have worked in Virginia’s Training Schools as a house parent and counselor and in the courts as a probation officer. I currently work for the Virginia Department of Corrections in a consultant-type capacity to Juvenile Courts in the Northern Virginia area.

My Background

Although I am not an expert on reading, I can tell you about the frustrations of reversing letters, numbers, words and concepts, being hyperactive, and being labeled “dumb,” “immature,“ “emotionally disturbed,” and “lazy.” I can tell you about these frustrations because as a probation officer, my kids had those labels. I can tell you about these frustrations because I was called those names too, until my label was changed to “strephosymbolia” (dyslexia) when I was in the 3rd grade.

My tutor, who had endless patience, was Diana Hanbury King, now the Director of the Kildonan School. When I was 9 years old, I was a student at Helene Dubrow’s camp for dyslexic kids in Vermont. My counselor, whom I loved so much, was Roger Saunders, past President of the Orton Society.

I am extremely fortunate and indebted to these people. Without their help, I might be able to give you the personal experiences of a probationer or a convict, not the experiences of a dyslexic probation officer. Until I received help from them, I was headed for a life of illiteracy and unhappiness.

Schools & Courts Help Children with Learning Disabilities Learn Criminal Behavior

Juvenile delinquents who have reading problems are often not diagnosed as children with language and learning disabilities. I will use the term “learning disabilities” since most of the research uses that term.

I will review the literature about the relationship between learning disabilities and delinquency. Then I will show you how the schools and the courts help the undiagnosed LD child learn criminal behavior. I will conclude with comments about the cost to society.

Research: Relationship Between Learning Disabilities & Delinquency

There is extensive research on the low reading grade levels of delinquents. Although the IQs of these youngsters are within the normal range, studies show that reading grade levels of the delinquent populations are two or more years delayed.

As a probation officer in Richmond, Virginia, the average age of my boys was 14½. They had 6.6 previous offenses. They were reading on the 3.5 grade level, so they were 6 years behind their peers. Eleven of my 21 youngsters had psychological evaluations. In 9 of the 11 evaluations, the child had clear symptoms of learning disabilities. Five of my most aggressive and delinquent boys had extensive evaluations including educational, psychiatric, psychological, and neurological evaluations. Four were diagnosed as having a primary learning disability.

Learning disabilities in delinquents were recorded as early as 1936 in New Light on Delinquency and Its Treatment. Healy and Bronner reported that 46 out of 87 delinquent boys studied had problems with reading, were hyperactive, and that none of the 87 non-delinquent boys in a control group had problems with reading and were characterized as hyperactive.

In 1965, Lloyd Thompson reported in his book Reading Disability, that Lee Harvey Oswald’s writing had frequent and bizarre errors similar to those of a dyslexic.

E.M.R. Critchley’s 1968 study of nearly 500 delinquents in England found that half were retarded in reading by 3 or more years. Walle’s research at the Patuxent Prison in Maryland in 1968 found that almost half of the inmates had a communication disorder.

In 1969, Silberberg and Silberberg reported on research by Williams. In a study of 1,250 inmates incarcerated for violent crimes and a history of habitual aggression, 57% had abnormal EEGs and could be classified as having minimal brain dysfunction.

In 1970, Duling Eddy, and Risko gave an extensive battery of tests to a sample population at the JFK Youth center in West Virginia. Fifty-three percent of this group had significant reading disabilities.

During the past five years, more studies have been completed. The results of these studies are beginning to have an impact on state legislatures.

At last year’s Orton Society’s Conference, Dennis Hogenson, the co-speaker in this session, talked about his research in Minnesota. I sent a copy of his paper to an interested Assistant Attorney General in Virginia. He passed the paper on to a key legislator in North Carolina. As a direct result of Dennis’ article, the North Carolina Crime Study Commission, which is composed mainly of legislators, did a follow-up study. I’m going to read the first two paragraphs of their report, “Learning Disabilities and Their Relation to Crime and Delinquency:”

"In attempting to formulate comprehensive crime prevention programs over the years innumerable study commissions, blue ribbon panels, penologists, investigative agencies, and other experts in all phases of the criminal justice field have grappled with the problem of identifying the primary underlining causes of crime and delinquency. The Crime Study Commission is cognizant of and concurs with many of the most recent efforts which have found such factors as (1) deprived socio-economic status, (2) unemployment, (3) poor school performance, (4) broken homes and (5) mental illness, as being primary contributing factors.

"The Crime Study Commission in this report will attempt to go one step further in the search for the cause of crime by postulating a theory, which simply stated that, “reading failure is the single most significant factor in those forms of delinquency which can be described as anti-socially aggressive.” (Emphasis added) If we believe that a significant amount of serious crime is committed by individuals who began their anti-social behavior as school dropouts and who graduated from juvenile delinquents to youthful offenders to adult criminals, then this theory, if proven, becomes vitally important indicator for crime prevention."

That is a strong statement from a legislative body.

Let me repeat their key finding: “Reading failure is the single most significant factor in those forms of delinquency which can be described as anti-socially aggressive.” Their quote and reference were Dennis’ words at The Orton Conference in Baltimore last year.

During the last year, much has happened. On April 9th, 10th, and 11th of this year, The Denver Post ran a series of articles about “Youth Crime, Learning Disability Found 90% Link.” In that article Chester Poremba who is Chairman of the ACLD’s Juvenile Delinquency Committee stated:

"Statistics are showing that 90.4% of juvenile delinquents have clinically provable learning disabilities . . . the percentage of youths involved in crimes who have learning disabilities probably isn’t rising . . . in my opinion the linkage was there all the time . . . we just weren’t smart enough to know about it."

This summer, Academic Therapy published “Learning Disabilities and Delinquent Youth” by August Mauser, who wrote:

"Both learning disabled and juvenile delinquent individuals have many behavioral similarities, and following a learning disability model is necessary when assessing, monitoring, and remediating the educational deficits found in the majority of our delinquent youth."

A conference about learning disabilities and delinquency was held in Texas. Many of the nation’s top experts attended. Milton Brutten, who is also scheduled to speak here this afternoon, said:

"If we can learn to identify these learning disabled adolescents they will not retreat because of their sense of worthlessness, to apathy, lethargy, passivity. They will not on the other hand vent their fury at the humiliations they experienced all through their life in anti-social behavior. They can be trained."

Brutten’s excellent book, Something’s Wrong with My Child, co-authored by Mangel and Richardson, has a chapter on reading problems and delinquency.

Recently, a study was completed at the Norfolk, Virginia’s Youth and Family Clinic. Fifty-nine percent of the juveniles referred to the Clinic by the juvenile court had learning disabilities.

The surge of interest and research is encouraging. The relationship between reading problems and juvenile delinquency is established.

Early Signs of Delinquency: Truancy

Studies show that with 90% of delinquents, their first major conflicts with society center involve truancy.

During the early years of school, the undiagnosed LD child begins to present significant behavioral problems. The child experiences frustration and develops a negative self-concept due to the learning problems.

Juvenile Court Involvement May Compound Problems

Eventually the child truants. At this stage, the school has failed, so the court is brought in to help.

In many cases, juvenile courts compound the problem. The juvenile court often places child on probation and orders the child to attend school. The child is under increased pressure from the parents, school, and court. While there may be a short-term improvement in attendance, more often the child continues to be truant.

Occasionally, this leads to the child getting specialized help. However, many school and court staff do not recognize the necessity of evaluations, or have the funds for evaluations. Educational evaluations are especially important. The truant who is before the court often does not receive a good evaluation.

Coercive Techniques to Improve School Attendance

The techniques used to improve school attendance are coercive in nature. Under these circumstances and pressures, the undiagnosed LD child is destined to fail. As frustrations, tensions, and pressures increase, the child develops hostility. He often escapes by using drugs, running away behavior, and delinquent acts.

As the delinquent develops a negative self-concept and builds negative peer relationships, truancy and delinquency increase.

Training Schools as Schools for Learning Crime

At this point, the child is often returned to court and may be committed to a juvenile training school. Nationwide, one-third to one-half of incarcerated juveniles are held for juvenile status offenses -- truancy, running away, and “incorrigibility.”

Most training schools are nothing more than good schools for learning crime.

Once the child enters the system, the “revolving door syndrome” begins. After he leaves the training school, he returns to the community, then returns to prison, then returns to the community, and so on.

Last year, a code improvement in Virginia changed truancy to a non-committable offense. In Richmond, there is no enforceable truancy law. In that city’s juvenile court, the truancy law was ruled as vague and therefore unconstitutional. The truancy law is in effect for the rest of the state, but some courts no longer accept petitions on that offense.

Juvenile Court Staff Need Training

Although the majority of juvenile offenders have learning disabilities, many court staff members have absolutely no knowledge about learning disabilities. In training sessions with probation officers, it is encouraging to see them recognize its significance.

Often, they will have a perplexing case where they cannot pinpoint the child’s problem. The kid is bright, hates school, is a fantastic mechanic, has interested and concerned parents, and has a long history of school problems. Something is wrong with the child. For the probation officer, learning about the LD link is like putting 2 and 2 together and finally making 4.

If you work with a child who is before the juvenile court, I urge you to go on a crusade to educate that child’s probation officer. Gather others together who are knowledgeable about learning disabilities. Seek out the judge and chief probation officer. Offer to do training programs for the court staff. The juvenile justice system needs your help. The court staff must learn to recognize potential learning disabilities and where these children can get the services they need.

Analyzing Academic Problems

Personally, I found the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT) to be a good aid in helping to identify the seriousness of a child’s academic problems. In a sense, it helps them know when they need to refer a child for an educational evaluation.

Bill Mulligan, Chief Probation Officer in Sonoma County, California, developed a screening test for probation staff to use assessing the possibility of a learning disability. The probation officer is trained to look for reversals, problems in directionality, and other clues that are characteristic of children with learning disabilities

Legal Issues

Several emerging legal issues will help. Many states have passed legislation requiring that children with learning disabilities be provided with an education.

A publication from the Council for Exceptional Children, “A Continuing Summary of Pending and Completed Litigation Regarding the Education of Handicapped Children” lists cases that may eventually affect the juvenile justice system.

Right to Treatment

In a suit against a juvenile court in Indiana, Nelson v. Heyne, 491 F.2d 352 (7th Cir. 1974), it was held that since a juvenile delinquent loses some of his civil liberties, he gains a constitutional right to treatment.

Other states expect test cases along the same line. If an incarcerated delinquent is diagnosed as having a special treatment need, for example, if he has a learning disability, then he must be provided with remediation, without regard to budgetary limitations.

Child’s Right to an Education

The current state of affairs will improve with the education of professionals and right to treatment cases.

The future is exciting. Those who are concerned about these youngsters share a dream that the educational and juvenile justice systems will coordinate their efforts, and develop early delinquency prevention programs. We can detect learning problems when a child enters kindergarten. If the child’s problems are identified early, the use of appropriate teaching techniques can turn the tide.

In the long run, this wil save money. In a speech before the Shoreline Parents Specific Learning Disabilities group, Judge Holte made several points about the economic impact of learning disabilities.

1. There is a tremendous economic impact on the parents of the learning disabled child.

2. School systems that deal with undiagnosed learning disabled children waste a tremendous number of teaching hours and turn out non-readers.

3. The juvenile justice system spends $10,000 a year to incarcerate one child.

4. Crime victims suffer tremendous financial and emotional losses.

5. The human suffering that the children experience cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

I will conclude with a quote from Judge Holte:

"For society, the cost of trying to accommodate those who cannot support themselves is enormous. The cost of trying to contain those who strike out against society is huge, but the cost in lost human potential is the greatest and most tragic loss of all. "

The End

Addendum: 2007

This presentation was first given at Annual Conference of The Orton Dyslexia Society in 1974. The Orton Dyslexia Society is now The International Dyslexia Association.

The presentation was given several months later in New York City at the Annual Conference of the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, which is now the Learning Disabilities Association of America.

In 1975, several cases (PARC and Mills) discussed in the monograph about litigation by the Council for Exceptional Children’s led Congress to pass Public Law 94-142, i.e., the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

This article included several pages of resources and a bibliography with references to the cited sources. Most are no longer in print and are unavailable.

My mentor, Robert E. Shepherd, Jr., the Assistant Attorney General for Virginia mentioned above, became a nationally recognized law professor who specialized in Education and Juvenile Law, and Trial and Appellate Advocacy. He became Professor Emeritus of Law at T.C. Williams School of Law, University of Richmond. He passed away in 2009. I miss him greatly. Because of his confidence in me, his guidance, his encouragement, and his written recommendations to law school admissions, I enrolled in the T.C. Williams School of Law in 1975.

Copyright 1974, 2007, Peter W. D. Wright, republished 2007.

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