What is a Reform School?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Reform schools were essentially holding places for juvenile offenders, and particularly focused on holding boys. In the US, the reform movement was started in the 19th century as an alternative to jailing younger children with adult offenders, but unfortunately, incarceration in one of the many US reform schools was just as likely to cause emotional damage. This trended against the initial intent of the reform school movement.

A reform school may be an alternative to incarceration for juvenile offenders.
A reform school may be an alternative to incarceration for juvenile offenders.

Along with establishment of reform school locations in much of the US came greater changes to how juveniles were perceived by the law. Initially, many people thought it was an excellent thing that teens were given an opportunity to correct their behavior and find a straight and narrow path before becoming adults. It should be said that some people did find the reform they needed, though the early schools were still formed prior to much development of psychological theories.

Reform schools may help separate teens from negative peer influence.
Reform schools may help separate teens from negative peer influence.

Unfortunately, reform schools also became places where children were abused, not just by custodians of the school, but also by older children. Tendency to be sexually abused in reform schools was noted by the mid-20th century, and many states began to rethink the way that juvenile crime was treated and to find alternatives to incarcerating children and teens. This doesn’t mean the reform school is completely gone, but standard state or federal incarceration facilities for youths are not called reform schools and instead are named juvenile correctional institutions. The term reform school had become loaded with many negative connotations.

The idea of reform schools was not solely American. In Ireland, a number of schools led by the Catholic Church were designated for “juvenile offenders.” Even more than in the US, these schools participated in near systemic offenses against children. In 2009, Ireland released documents that confirmed intense abuse of children usually by priests and/or nuns in 50 of these schools to which children could be sent for little cause. Unlike the US reform school, children could be placed in the Irish institutions if a parent was deemed unworthy of parenting them. This higher level of authority in removing children from homes may have led to greater license to abuse.

Today the term reform school is usually not used, unless it is used by private organizations that offer some type of reformatory care for older children and teens. These may vary in the quality of care they offer, and parents considering sending a child to a reform institution should carefully consider the credentials of the people running it; some schools are excellent and others have highly questionable practices. There has also been a trend toward not incarcerating youths for milder offenses. They may instead live at home and attend schools that are better trained to handle children with behavioral issues. These are often called alternative schools.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


My older brother went to one of these, and it was not too great he said. Depends of what you did, I guess.


Our town is considering a "reform school" of sorts that has a different look. It is a home that has a mom and dad figure, they will try to run it as an actual home. The courts have decided that many of kids in trouble are from broken homes, so maybe this type of setting will help them.

The only other thing we have is a traditional reform school that is more like juvenile detention, where the kids are sentenced and incarcerated for a specific amount of time.

They go to school there and have counselors, but I don't think it works very well.

I hope this other model will improve the rehabilitation percentage.


My school district had a sort of reform school. It was called the "opportunity school", and everyone knew you had to really break lot of rules in order to be sent there. My county also had a real reform school for boys called "Boys' Village", though it was more of a "Let's behave better by connecting with one another and planting vegetables and doing manual labor" than an incarceration sort of situation. I also don't believe that it had very serious offenders in it, but more boys who had gotten in trouble in school too many times to go anywhere else, even their own areas' version of an öpportunity school".

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