Talbot schools repeal ban

But superintendent wants to bar group-home youths after alleged sex assaults

`A ticking time bomb'

Center's director says action shows Easton rejects inner-city children

April 12, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON - Two recent sexual assaults allegedly involving residents of a group home for troubled teens have inflamed tensions between the 36-year-old facility and officials here in rural Talbot County - where the superintendent of schools had banned the boys from local classrooms.

Rescinding his order yesterday after the director of Bethany House threatened to walk three of the boys into their special education classes at Easton High School, schools chief J. Sam Meek sidestepped a confrontation.

But Meek made it clear he has deep misgivings about allowing youngsters from the group home to attend public schools.

"We were not going to stand in the schoolhouse door," Meek told reporters at a hastily arranged news conference. "We've seen some really good kids come through the Bethany House program, but we've also seen some kids that are pretty predatory, and you can't always tell the difference. These are urban kids with street smarts that make them a ticking time bomb."

Meek said he offered to provide teachers or tutors who would instruct Bethany students at the 16-acre complex about 10 miles outside Easton, hoping to provide a "cooling off" period.

The center's executive director, however, said the proposal was meant to permanently isolate his students from the county school system, which has a legal mandate to educate them.

Lee Sullivan, who has headed the center for 20 years, said the proposed ban - and a move by state officials to revoke the center's operating license - are evidence of a continuing pattern of harassment by social service, school and law enforcement officials aimed at shutting down the home for boys, which primarily serves African-American teens.

"It's a political squeeze designed to run us out," said Sullivan, who was asked to leave Meek's news briefing. "We do have some incidents here with 24 teen-agers, but the problem isn't Bethany House. We really believe some of the local agencies want to force us to close."

Sullivan and Easton attorney Harry M. Walsh Jr., who represents the nonprofit corporation that runs Bethany House, said two scathing letters from Meek and Talbot prosecutor Scott Patterson to state social service officials showed that key county officials want the facility closed.

`Witch hunt'

"I'm close to using the term `witch hunt,'" Walsh said. "It's a clear that some elements of this affluent community don't want these inner-city kids."

Sullivan has kept a detailed log of a series of investigations and surprise visits by state and local social service officials during the last year, scrutiny that included a probe two years ago by a county grand jury.

Patterson dismissed the charge that local officials have unfairly targeted the facility.

Public safety

"My concerns about Bethany House as it has been run in recent years are concerns about public safety and the safety of the kids there," said Patterson. "No one is saying they don't want a group home in Talbot County. This needs to be a facility where problems are solved, not created."

School officials were stunned when a 14-year-old Bethany House resident was accused of raping a 14-year-old girl at Easton Middle School on March 27.

Police say the boy, charged April 5 with second-degree rape, third- and fourth-degree sex offense and second-degree assault, lured the girl into an unattended construction area at the middle school. He is being held at a Kent County youth detention center pending a hearing.

Parents were informed of the incident in an April 9 letter from Meek that outlined his plans for banning Bethany House students and increasing Easton Middle School's security staff from three to four.

"There has been a growing concern on the part of our staff about security. Many of these kids have psychological problems we are not equipped to deal with," said Meek, who complained that Bethany House frequently failed to provide detailed information about students sent to county schools.

Revocation move

Last month, the state's Social Services Administration, which is responsible for licensing 280 group homes in Maryland, moved to revoke the facility's license after police notified the agency about the alleged rape Feb. 23 of a 14-year-old resident by an 18-year-old fellow resident.

Administration officials refused yesterday to discuss details of the case.

"There was concern about numerous violations and concern about late reporting of an alleged assault," said Craig Adams, director of the office of management services.

Sullivan denied charges by state police investigators that Bethany House staff members waited nearly 40 hours to call police. He said staff members notified authorities as soon as they believed a sexual assault had occurred.

Bethany House has appealed the state's effort to revoke the license, a plea that will be heard by an administrative law judge. No hearing has been scheduled.

The center, licensed to care for 24 youths in three bungalows, has 10 children in residence.

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