Lolo Latu, a soft-spoken 17-year-old and the youngest inmate at the Cache County Jail, still dreams of attending college and perhaps playing football after he pays his debt to society.
But the teen, who was an 11th-grader at Smithfield High School before committing an aggravated robbery that landed him in the adult jail, said he feels his opportunities are slipping away.
"One of my problems in school is that it is hard for me to understand what is being taught without the help of a teacher," Latu wrote in a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune. "I really do hope you can help me some how [sic]. My education really does mean a lot to me because I do want to continue my education after high school."
Cache County Jail officials say Latu has made no effort to continue his education while behind bars, but legal experts say that shouldn't matter under the state's compulsory education laws and the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Unless they meet certain exceptions, incarcerated minors under 18 should be getting an education unless they already have a GED, the experts say.
"Regardless of what the law is, you should educate that person," said Clayton Simms, Salt Lake City attorney, who is not involved in Latu's case. "It happens to be a requirement, but even if it wasn't, the right thing would be to educate that inmate."
Latu, who is legally a minor but is considered an adult in criminal court, is among a group of youths who don't fit into either world.
They continue to slip through the cracks of Utah's educational system.
National problem • Utah courts do not keep track of how many youths are charged in the adult court system each year, so it's unknown how many inmates under 18 are in the state's jails while awaiting trial or sentencing.
But Joseph Tulman, a Washington, D.C., attorney and law professor who specializes in special education rights for incarcerated youths, said failing to educate teens like Latu is a problem nationwide.
It's a familiar problem for Simms. In 2008, he had to file papers in court so his client, Mae Goodman Johnson, then 16 and accused of murder in adult court, could get schooling in the Salt Lake County Jail.
Ultimately, he said, the jail provided school books and a volunteer math tutor for Johnson, now serving time in a Utah prison for manslaughter.
But providing such services for minors is inconvenient for many jails.
"[The jails] are not set up for that," Simms said. "They're not set up to educate a 16-year-old in jail."
Latu, who arrived at the Cache jail on March 5, is awaiting sentencing for the aggravated robbery conviction a crime he committed when he was 16, but which was tried in adult court.
As of Wednesday, he had spent more than 270 days behind bars without receiving any sort of education. By comparison, youths his age housed in juvenile detention facilities typically receive schooling daily.
Cache County Jail Lt. Matt Bilodeau said as of Wednesday, Latu had not asked to continue his education through the jail's GED program, even though he was directly approached by jail staff and informed the program is free. The GED classes, administered through the Cache County School District, use a computer program that allows inmates to print out assignments and complete them at their own pace.
"On programs like this, we're not going to force an inmate," he said. "To force somebody into that program would probably not do an inmate any good whatsoever."
Bilodeau said county jails don't have the same authority as juvenile facilities over youth educational programs.
"If they don't comply there are consequences," he said of juvenile detention. "We don't have the power to enforce anything, [to say] 'go and learn.' "
But Simms said that shouldn't be an excuse. Most parents wouldn't tell a child it's OK to skip school; the state shouldn't either.
Simms said the compulsory education law is in place, in part, to make sure youths "are not just being a bum, hanging out, [but are] doing something positive."
"Even if the young man did say that, you don't accept that," he said of Latu. "This is the only thing that is going to rehabilitate him and set him on the right path."
When asked about Latu's educational status, records at the state Office of Education (USOE) didn't list him as incarcerated, let alone being a minor.
"Our program should be routinely picking up everyone who is in that jail," said Jeff Galli, adult education specialist with the USOE.
Galli said it should be easy to enroll in a jail education program, which are government funded. He said he was "disheartened" to hear that Latu was reportedly experiencing the same troubles Johnson had in 2008.
"That should not have happened either," Galli said. "He [Latu] had fallen through the cracks, too."
Education helps rehabilitation • Tulman said the main problem is a lack of concern about what happens to such youths. But that's a mistake.
"It's completely illegal and counterproductive," he said of not providing educational services to incarcerated youths.
Most young offenders are likely to be released at some point and ignoring the issue could leave the state vulnerable to a lawsuit for violating their guaranteed right to an education.
"Rather than educating people adequately and appropriately, we rely on incarceration," Tulman said. "We incarcerate children at a rate that is almost five times as great as the next highest country. And we send people away for much longer sentences than you find in other countries. Then, we don't educate people who are incarcerated, so we've created a situation in which people are less equipped to successfully reintegrate [into society]."
In addition, he said, the state should immediately evaluate teens like Latu when they enter any jail or prison because federal law ensures additional resources are available to youths with learning disabilities. However, if an incarcerated youth has not been identified previously as eligible for special education services, that must happen before the minor turns 18. Tulman said such youths should always be evaluated before they're sentenced to make sure they end up where they can receive appropriate services.
"It could actually help the defendant a lot if the attorney knows enough to look at the education needs," he said.
In Utah, any individual who fails to comply with the compulsory education law could face prosecution for a class B misdemeanor, Simms said.
Simms views education as a long-term benefit to society.
"It's very important to educate those people who are in jail and under the age of 18," he said. "Most people who are sentenced and most people who commit crimes [at that age] are eventually released back into society. Do you want that person rehabilitated?"