The state's closing of Hickey School will send more offenders to a well-regarded private center in Carroll County

School Uses Peer Pressure To Redeem Wayward Youths

October 05, 2005|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

Amid the rolling hills of western Carroll County, an asphalt lane off Crouse Mill Road winds its way between cornfields to a tidy compound of buildings in beige and brown.

They nurture a different kind of crop here at Bowling Brook Preparatory School, a privately run residential program for 161 juvenile offenders. The hoped-for harvest is rescued lives.

Maryland, among other states, has long paid Bowling Brook to rehabilitate teenage boys who have committed assaults, armed robberies or other serious crimes. The Department of Juvenile Services is expected to send even more kids to this unfenced campus outside Taneytown as it prepares to close most of the state-run Charles H. Hickey Jr. School next month.

Delmas Wood, an assistant secretary of juvenile services, says his department has been "very pleased" with Bowling Brook. "To the degree we and they feel that they can handle them, some of those [Hickey] kids will go there," he said.

Some will go to other programs in Maryland or live at home.

The most difficult young offenders will be sent to other states - Texas, Indiana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania - until plans are made for new high-security programs in Maryland.

Bowling Brook's headmaster, Mike Sunday, says his program has to be selective about whom it takes. It does not admit youths who have severe emotional problems, are drug addicts or have been convicted of sex offenses, he said.

Those who are accepted share one important trait: Each is judged susceptible to peer pressure, which is a central force in the program's efforts to change their behavior. "Kids are more apt to follow and listen to direction from their peer group than they are from adults," Sunday said.

He describes Bowling Brook - which has operated in Carroll County for more than four decades - as "essentially a highly structured private school for mostly disadvantaged young men who have become entangled in the juvenile justice system."

Youths work out their energy on the football field and in the gym. Athletic performance is recognized and rewarded, as are academic achievements. Trophy cases and bulletin boards that trumpet student accomplishments line the walls of every building.

This rather simple-sounding approach of structured academics and athletics, peer pressure and positive reinforcement has resulted in a program that draws effusive praise from youth advocates.

"It's a fantastic program," said Susan B. Leviton, who heads the juvenile law clinic at the University of Maryland.

Stacey Gurian-Sherman, who heads an advocacy group for families of delinquents, calls Bowling Brook "a model residential facility, and it's right in our own backyard."

"The one drawback to Bowling Brook is there is only one of them," she said. "We need to be building more Bowling Brooks."

The kind of peer-driven culture that sends youths down self-destructive paths in poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Baltimore's and Washington's suburbs is turned on its head at Bowling Brook. The smirks and swaggers and tough-guy posturing that young men adopt to survive on the streets or inside a facility such as Hickey don't play well at the school.

Here, the culture is of handshakes and polite manners. It is a cardinal rule - "non-negotiable," Sunday says - that no youth is ever to hit another.

"If a kid feels safe, he can relax. And if he can relax, he can focus and learn," Sunday said. "We try to create an environment conducive to learning."

Youths adhere to a rigorous and busy schedule.

On weekdays, they are out of bed at 6:30 and after breakfast head for school. Following a break for lunch, they spend some time in small group-therapy sessions. The remainder of the afternoon is for sports and physical fitness activities. There is study time in the dorms, then it's off to bed at 9:30.

The cost of the nonprofit school is $41,000 a year per student - less than the $65,000 a year the state spends to keep a youth at Hickey. Many other private and public residential programs are more expensive than Bowling Brook because they serve youths who require more intensive services, according to state officials.

Last June, the school housed 80 Maryland youths, Sunday said. The number has since grown to about 110 as state officials prepare to close Hickey's 144-bed secure program Nov. 30. Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia also use Bowling Brook.

While long-term recidivism rates for juvenile programs generally are not kept, Bowling Brook stacks up well against similar programs based on the numbers that are available.

Figures provided by Maryland juvenile services officials show that only 14 percent of Bowling Brook youths were arrested or referred back to the state agency within a year of their release. Those numbers, however, don't reflect cases in which youths wound up in adult prisons.

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