New operator may be on the right track, but it's not moving fast enough for state HICKEY SCHOOL -- Year of Unfulfilled Promises

August 21, 1994|By Kate Shatzkin and Matt Ebnet | Kate Shatzkin and Matt Ebnet,Sun Staff Writers

Police helicopters no longer hover over the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, looking for escapees who were some of Maryland's worst young criminals. For that, State Juvenile Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar is grateful.

But a year after taking over the troubled reformatory, Youth Services International Inc. still doesn't have the programs in place that most agree are needed to turn Hickey's 300 residents away from their next predictable stop -- jail -- and toward productive lives.

For about $55,000 a year of taxpayer money per youth -- more than enough for a sound college education -- the firm is offering students inadequate schooling, spotty job training and virtually no treatment for the drug addictions that affect many of them, critics say.

"The food is good. The place is 100 percent cleaner. But we're paying an enormous amount of money per child for this program," said Pat Hanges, a longtime volunteer and child advocate at Hickey. "What we thought we bought, we don't have."

To be sure, executives of the Owings Mills-based company, started by the founder of Jiffy Lube, are being asked to do something no other operator of the school has: change the behavior of system-savvy delinquents, provide a good education and vocational skills, and calm a security-conscious public. And all for about $2,000 less per student than the state spent when it ran Hickey.

"Our first objective was to provide peace of mind, safety and security," said Youth Services chief executive officer W. James Hindman. He said the company had to gain control of a chaotic facility before it could launch programs.

But concerns about Youth Services' ability to rehabilitate its charges are voiced by teachers and youth workers at the school, former staff members who left during the past year and child advocates who have monitored conditions at Hickey. Among their complaints:

* Not enough money goes into programs or materials, critics charge. Several teachers spoke of picking through donated textbooks from the 1960s to stitch together lesson plans while orders for new supplies went unfilled.

* An auto shop and print shop have remained empty and unstaffed through most of the year, despite the boast in a recent newsletter to company shareholders that students were learning new skills" in those shops.

* Youth Services' use of peaceful confrontation to change behavior frequently results instead in physical restraint by staff of the 158 students confined to the school's most secure program. Restraint in these cases -- sometimes for infractions as minor as talking in class or refusing to surrender a comb -- usually means students are held, dropped to the floor and kept there several minutes until they settle down.

* Staff turnover is unacceptably high, critics say. Of top administrators originally hired to turn the school around, many have left or have been promoted in the company. Many line-staff members were disillusioned by pay cuts Youth Services instituted when it came in; some have left, and others plan to leave.

* A mostly white teaching staff educates a population that is 85 percent black, prompting charges that the company does not provide effective role models who understand what the youths will face when they return to inner-city neighborhoods.

Ms. Saar, whose department is completing an audit of Hickey operations, gives the company credit for reducing escapes that plagued the first private operator, the Rebound Corp. of Denver, and for running some aspects of the school well.

'Needs work'

But she said that what is being offered is not enough, and Youth Services has to produce the programs it promised when it got a contract paying $49 million in its first three years; the final two years of the contract are still to be negotiated.

In many areas, the company's performance "needs work," Ms. Saar said.

Youth Services executives generally don't dispute the problems, and say they are working to correct each one. "We are on the road to doing a lot of things," Mr. Hindman said.

Whether the company can succeed should matter to Marylanders worried about how to prevent crimes and punish those who commit them.

As across the nation, juvenile crime in the state is on the rise, with a 31 percent increase in charges against youngsters for offenses such as assault, rape and robbery between 1991 and 1993. These are some of the young offenders who wind up at Hickey.

Those whose behavior does not change or whose mental, drug and alcohol or sexual impulse problems are not addressed, stand poised to overwhelm already crowded state prisons, collecting victims along the way who frequently are younger still.

A history of failure

Hickey historically has failed miserably to rehabilitate most of its charges. At its worst, the 144-year-old school has been a warehouse from which escape was easy and frequent.

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