No 70-Day Miracle

November 25, 1991

Leave it to Maryland's state legislators to seize on the slightest pretext to play demagogue. They did it last week in the State House when they called a private Colorado company on the carpet for failing to work wonders at the troubled Hickey School for juveniles. How much time did these legislators give the company to perform this miracle? A mere 70 days.

Since a constant parade of state officials have failed miserably for decades to improve matters at the Hickey School, it isn't surprising that a private company hired only on Sept. 1 has seen a continuation of many of the same problems that plagued previous administrators.

Hickey is, after all, the place where Maryland's most troubled and violent delinquent juveniles are sent. Eighty percent of the 372 juveniles there have alcohol or drug addiction problems. They often have learning disabilities as well. No one should have expected a 70-day miracle.

Rebound Inc., the Colorado company given a three-year contract by the state to run the Hickey School, was certain to encounter initial difficulties. It has. Twenty-one escapes in just 2 1/2 months compared with only 10 escapes in the prior eight months. Disenchanted volunteer tutors. Complaints about inadequate clothing and blankets.

That was enough to send several senators into orbit, even threatening to strip Rebound of its $50 million contract. How quickly they forget.

Earlier this year, when legislators approved a measure to privatize the Hickey School, the feeling was that things couldn't get any worse than they had been. Though escapes were down from a high of 187 in 1988, juveniles at Hickey received inadequate emotional, educational and physiological attention. The school was a failure.

So far, Rebound has increased medical services and recreational and teaching programs. Each child now goes to school daily. More treatment programs are being added for kids with addictions. The company's biggest misstep is that it failed to give its new staff members sufficient training on security procedures or to alert staffers to the "sophisticated" nature of these delinquent juveniles. Those shortcomings have already been corrected.

If privatization is to succeed, legislators will have to permit the process time to work. You can't simply pass judgment after a few months. It took decades to bring the Hickey School to such low levels. Let's give Rebound at least a few years before evaluating its performance.

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