O'Malley seeking funds for juveniles

As Bowling Brook closes, state eyes new youth facility

Millions more sought for juvenile services

General Assembly

Sun Follow-up

March 09, 2007|By Greg Garland and Laura McCandlish | Greg Garland and Laura McCandlish,Sun reporters

Gov. Martin O'Malley is asking the legislature to add $21 million to the budget of Maryland's troubled juvenile services system, including money to open the state's first new residential treatment program for youth offenders in more than a decade, officials said yesterday.

The state is leaning toward using the site of the former Victor Cullen Academy in Frederick County, which closed in 2002, according to new Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore. Acknowledging the problems that have beset large facilities, he said the new program would be smaller than those the state has run in the past.

"I have no intention of opening a big facility there," DeVore said. "It will be 48 beds."

The budget announcement came as the privately run Bowling Brook Preparatory School in Carroll County sent its last remaining students back to their home jurisdictions and prepared to close today, after five decades in operation.

Bowling Brook is shutting down under state pressure as investigations continue into the death of Isaiah Simmons, 17, who died Jan. 23 after being physically restrained for three hours by staff members. Former students and employees have told The Sun it was not unusual for youths to be held on the ground by counselors, sometimes for hours, as a way of controlling behavior or punishing disobedience.

The state medical examiner has ruled Simmons' death a homicide, and a Carroll County grand jury will hear evidence next month to determine whether criminal charges should be brought. The FBI also is investigating. Bowling Brook officials have denied any wrongdoing.

DeVore said the school surrendered its state license yesterday. The nonprofit school's board of directors voted last week to close after Maryland and other states removed most of the juvenile offenders housed there. At the time of Simmons' death, more than 170 youths were held at Bowling Brook, about 70 from Maryland.

The state has relied heavily on Bowling Brook and out-of-state programs for juvenile offenders since then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. closed most of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County in 2005. The Cheltenham Youth Facility also was downsized during his tenure.

For years, the Hickey school had been criticized as unsafe for youths and advocates pushed for its closing. But many faulted the administration for failing to develop programs to replace it.

State Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a leading Assembly proponent of juvenile services reform, praised the plans announced yesterday. "This is what we've been needing," said the Baltimore County Democrat. "I've always said you'll know when someone's serious about reforms when they begin to open up new facilities."

The mood was somber on Bowling Brook's 16-acre campus in rural Keymar yesterday afternoon, as young men sat in a van idling outside the main building, apparently waiting to leave.

"We're hopeful that these young men who are being transitioned out can take what they've learned here and have a successful and positive life," said Brian Hayden, Bowling Brook's treasurer.

The school had been building an expansion when Simmons died, and an electrician was installing light fixtures yesterday in a vocational education building that would have opened in May.

"We're certainly hoping they're going to allow us to finish the work," said David Wantz, whose company has worked on Bowling Brook projects since the late 1990s. "These have been great people to work for."

School employees described the atmosphere as sad. "It's like a funeral every day. It's like a death," said Emily Matthews, a cook. "I don't care that I lost my job. I can find another job. But it's hard to see the staff crying. It's hard to see adult men cry."

Max White, a former Bowling Brook board member, said he hopes the state Department of Juvenile Services doesn't take over the school. "They'll probably put more-serious offenders in there then," White said. "I'm just hoping against hope that doesn't happen."

Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale, a Carroll County Republican and Bowling Brook supporter, said she can't imagine the state taking over. "I for one will lead a protest to keep it out," she said.

Stocksdale said she is upset that the school is closing. "I just think the state jumped and ruined the best program they had," she said.

Other local politicians also were distressed.

"The boys helped out so much in the community," said Perry L. Jones Jr., a former mayor of nearby Union Bridge. "It's a shame a lot of these guys will have to go to facilities not as nice as these are here. Hopefully, it can be reopened somehow."

The school's future is unclear. Bowling Brook officials have declined to answer questions, but suggested last week that they might want to reopen at some point.

Some residents whose farms border the bucolic campus near Taneytown said they are glad to see the school close.

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