Pa. reform school keeps kids on right path

March 06, 2002|By Gregory Kane

DRIVE THROUGH the gates of the private educational facility known as the Glen Mills Schools, and you'll read a sign to your right paying tribute to one or more of the sports teams.

The one today reads "Good Luck, Wrestling, Power Lifting, Indoor Track." There's a parking lot just to the left of the sign. Climb some wooden stairs, and you're on the campus quadrangle, with the administration building on the left and the student union just ahead.

Classroom buildings and residence halls are to the right. In the distance lies what was the chapel. It's now the school library, behind which looms a Bastille-like structure, complete with towers, that serves as the gymnasium.

Students hurry along pathways to and from classes, greeting visitors with a polite "Good morning" or "How are you?" All stay on the paved sidewalks. Not one cuts across the grass.

That lets you know Glen Mills is no ordinary private school. No tuition is paid here. Students come from 26 states and a couple of foreign countries. They hail from such places as Denver, Flint, Mich., Germany and Austria.

Walking on the grass would violate one of Glen Mills' "behavioral norms," which are common at this school where the mission is to change conduct and attitudes. Glen Mills has other behavioral norms. The five basic ones are:

1. No one has the right to hurt another person.

2. Education and the classrooms are sacred.

3. We will never behave in any way that will discredit ourselves, our unit or our school.

4. We take pride in our school.

5. A Glen Mills student is always a gentleman.

To most of us, there's nothing special about such behavioral norms. But some students entering Glen Mills may have run into such demands for the first time.

It's a reform school, this Glen Mills. It's located in Concordville, Pa., just south of Philadelphia and less than 100 miles from Baltimore. Its 900 students are males 14 to 18 years old. They get to Glen Mills after a juvenile court probation officer or social service agency in one of the 26 states that sends students there sends admissions officers a referral. If Glen Mills accepts a student, his home state pays for his stay.

Glen Mills takes students who have been in trouble with the law, but as a private, nonprofit enterprise, they are allowed to pick and choose which troublemakers they'll get.

"We don't have psychologists on staff to deal with those who are suicidal, self-destructive, psychotic or severely emotionally disturbed," said Rosanne Hurst, a Glen Mills administrator. The school also turns away those who have a history of arson.

Glen Mills opened in 1829 within Philadelphia's city limits. Land was purchased in more rural Concordville in 1888, and the school relocated there.

No fences surround this reform school, no barbed wire, no bars on the doors or windows of the 14 residence halls. The dorms, which the school calls units, are named after Presidents Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Van Buren, Jackson, Lincoln, Johnson (Andrew), Adams, Buchanan, Monroe, Madison, Fillmore, Jefferson and Hayes. Glen Mills has not yet succumbed to the politically correct mania that reviles anything dead, white and male.

On yet another unseasonably warm February day, students from Lauren Dundes' sociology class at Western Maryland College are visiting Glen Mills for an informational tour. Hurst met students and instructor at the administration building, then led them to the student union, where a group of six student guides waited.

The visitors were divided into three groups with two guides each. Dundes' group was paired with Shannon Murrell, a tall, lanky, 19-year-old basketball and volleyball player from South Philadelphia, and Terrence Beasley, a 5-foot-9-inch, barrel-chested member of Glen Mills' nationally ranked power-lifting team. Beasley, 18, is from Grand Rapids, Mich.

The duo led their group on a tour of classrooms and vocational facilities, which included a barber shop, car repair shop, radio station (no rap allowed), television production center, carpentry shop and optical center.

The print shop runs off copies of the student newspaper, The Battling Bulletin. At lunch, Beasley told members of his group that students can eat as much as they want in the cafeteria.

"If you don't get right after being here," Beasley said, "there's no hope for you."

Beasley and Murrell have each been at Glen Mills 15 months, which is the average stay. Murrell, although he's adjusted to life at the school, acknowledged that he's looking forward to going home. Beasley is in no hurry. In a couple of weeks, he'll be in St. Louis competing for Glen Mills in the national power-lifting championships.

Glen Mills officials said the most recent study available shows that 35 percent of the students will revert to criminal conduct once they return to their environments. Dundes, an avid supporter of the school, says that's lower than the rate at the lock-down juvenile facilities. She'd like to see the Glen Mills model replicated in Maryland.

"It gets the job done," Dundes said of Glen Mills, "at about half the cost."

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