Captive audience

September 26, 2004

POSITIVE CHANGES in the classrooms at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. reformatory school are clear to see -- and hear. The boys sit closer together at their desks, not spread out thinly across the room. Their eyes are open and looking to the instructor or at their work. Teachers stand among the kids, leading quiet but animated discussions or cruising among the seats during quiet work. The young inmates are students for six hours of each weekday -- and they have homework.

That's a far cry from a few months ago, when doors were shut, teachers were found more often at their desks or at the chalkboard, a stray visitor would disrupt the entire class, kids looked dazed or sullen and the school day was roughly three hours long.

The difference? The state Department of Education has taken over instruction at Hickey. It's one of the first tangible results from a package of juvenile justice reform bills passed last Assembly session. After only six weeks of class, and without the full complement of teachers and staff yet, the improvement is obvious and welcome. It's like a real school, one juvenile told his dorm warden.

That's exactly what these kids need. Many were sent here after being suspended or expelled from school; most have yeoman's work to do to get back on track for their grade level. When they leave the custody of the Department of Juvenile Services, most will return to their outside schools, and the more ready they are to quickly join in and stay in class, the less likely they are to turn back down a wrong path and end up back in DJS or police custody.

Hickey was targeted for takeover because the schooling there had been badly done by the private company that had been running the facility, but schooling at the state-run facilities isn't that much better. According to a recent monitor's report, the boys awaiting a hearing at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center still had just three hours of instruction -- and some weren't getting any school time at all last month. Not surprisingly, these were the teens who said they were bored and who caused much of the damage and danger the department has been trying to reduce.

The new law requires the Education Department to take over schooling at all DJS committed facilities -- by 2012. That's too long for these kids to wait.

The department managed to start at Hickey just months after the law was passed; it must be possible to roll into the other eight facilities in less than eight years. The department's Hickey budget this year, though, was slashed, so some vocational programs were scaled back or eliminated.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state legislators must commit to fully funding Hickey as well as allocating money to speed the other takeovers. For Hickey this year, perhaps trade unions and local businesses could lend a hand. That would be a wise investment -- not just in the future of these children, but in the future of this state.

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