Closing disappoints school's supporters

`Sad ending' of an institution that was once lauded is lamented

March 03, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun Reporter

Bowling Brook Preparatory School was long regarded as a rare gem in Maryland's troubled juvenile justice system, a place that took in delinquent teens and turned them into well-mannered young men.

The residential program for juvenile offenders has been the subject of intense criticism since a youth died there in January, yet some of its supporters were disappointed yesterday to learn that it will close next week.

An emotional Del. Donald B. Elliot, a Republican representing parts of Carroll and Frederick counties, called the closing of Bowling Brook a "sad ending to an outstanding institution."

Even if investigators determine that the death of 17-year-old Isaiah Simmons was caused by "excessive disciplinary practice," Elliot said, he is confident that such behavior was an anomaly at the Carroll County school.

"The school has contributed so much to the community," said Elliot, who expressed hope that Bowling Brook will be able to reopen.

State officials had been investigating practices at Bowling Brook since Simmons died, but many in the community thought its good reputation would help it weather the storm.

Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale, a Westminster Republican who has visited the school many times, said that as recently as last week, Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore talked to her about making changes at the school. But the idea of closing it didn't come up in their meeting, she said.

"The investigation should have revolved around these employees and what they did, and what the kid did to get them to do that," she said. "If you have a murder in a prison, you don't close down the whole prison. You fix the situation."

Stocksdale said the state "jumped ahead" with threats to revoke the school's license under pressure from the state's chief public defender, Nancy Forster, who said in January that she wanted all of the children there removed.

Unlike communities that rally to get juvenile facilities in their midst closed or try to ignore them, Carroll County officials embraced Bowling Brook. Boys from the school picked up trash at festivals, set up tables for corn roasts and served breakfast to raise money for charity.

When Union Bridge, about four miles from the school, held monthly breakfasts to raise money for its new town hall, the Bowling Brook boys helped set up tables and pour orange juice.

A few months ago, when officials paid off the town hall mortgage and decided to stop holding the breakfasts, Bowling Brook asked whether it could host the event to continue to raise money for the town.

The youths assembled a spread with bacon, pancakes, potatoes and eggs, and served it politely, Union Bridge Mayor Bret Grossnickle said.

"I don't know what happened. I wasn't there," Grossnickle said of the incident that led to Simmons' death. "But I know the boys that came were polite, considerate and well-mannered, so they were doing something right."

But many juvenile advocates who once praised Bowling Brook said the school had become a victim of its own success. Because it was well regarded, the state overloaded it, they said, and sometimes sent to it youths who did not fit in well in a cooperative setting that stressed teamwork.

"If the kid fit the mold, it would be a good program," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, who runs a Montgomery County-based advocacy group for juveniles and their families. But abuse, she said, is never acceptable.

After years of delays in closing troubled institutions under the two previous governors, Gurian-Sherman said she is encouraged that the O'Malley administration took steps that led to the closing of Bowling Brook.

"They have done the right thing," she said. "This is a great indication that the O'Malley administration is going to walk the walk."

Jim McComb, who heads the Maryland Association of Resources for Family and Youth, an association of private service providers, said Bowling Brook had "some outstanding successes" working with some of the toughest teens. But the school grew too large, and that contributed to its problems, he said.

"They redirected the lives of thousands of kids over the years," McComb said. "That does not justify practices that result in children dying."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Gadi Dechter and Greg Garland contributed to this article.

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