Bowling Brook's growing pains

Ex-workers blame enrollment surge

Sun exclusive

March 18, 2007|By Gadi Dechter and Greg Garland | Gadi Dechter and Greg Garland,sun reporters

In a field where failure is the norm, the Bowling Brook Preparatory School seemed to be the rare program that worked.

Judges sent young armed robbers there, and they emerged college-bound high school graduates. A rural community watched with approval as urban delinquents became young gentlemen who volunteered at town fairs and pancake breakfasts. Lawmakers in Annapolis took notice, showering the privately run reformatory with millions in construction dollars so it could house and rehabilitate more of the state's swelling population of juvenile offenders.

But over the past few years, troubling changes were taking place inside the beige brick buildings of the sprawling campus tucked amid Carroll County farms, an investigation by The Sun has found.

As Bowling Brook expanded to take in many more youths, the staff increasingly used force to control them, former employees say. Indeed, the practice of physically restraining students - pinning them to the ground, often face down, sometimes for hours - became a routine behavior-management tactic, according to interviews with eight former staff members.

Counselors used force to break the spirits of youths with too much "street" attitude and to punish those who declined to conform to strict expectations of appropriate behavior, these former workers say. Some students were targeted for this treatment even before they got to Bowling Brook, which had to close this month in the aftermath of a student's death.

"The philosophy changed," said Chad Leister, who was a Bowling Brook counselor from 1998 to 2001 - and found a very different attitude among staff when he returned in 2006 to work as an administrator.

During his first stint, Leister said, he was involved in three restraints in three years. "It was a big deal if somebody got restrained," he said. "But when I came back, it was a natural thing, a daily occurrence."

In an interview last week, a top Bowling Brook administrator vehemently denied that school staff used restraint except when proper and necessary.

"The stuff they're telling you, it's not going on," said Brian Hayden, the school's program manager, though he declined to discuss specific allegations. "I would never work in a program like that."

But according to just-released internal records, inspectors for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services have been told for some time of the school's increasing reliance on physical restraint.

Department investigators who visited Bowling Brook in September 2005 asked to speak to eight students - and five reported that they had been restrained for infractions as minor as scowling, the state records say. One student said he was held to the ground for writing a letter home pleading to be discharged.

The school's nurse formally complained to the department last August about the staff's handling of several youths, including one who was so badly bruised while being restrained that she sent him to the emergency room.

These practices culminated in the death Jan. 23 of 17-year-old Isaiah Simmons, who passed out and died during a restraint by counselors that lasted three hours. The medical examiner has ruled his death a homicide, listing the cause as "sudden death by restraint." State and federal authorities are still investigating.

Experts say physical restraint can be dangerous and should be a rare event - done only to prevent someone from hurting himself or others. Its use as a punishment for minor infractions, as described in the state's September 2005 reports, is "unacceptable," says Donald W. DeVore, the state's new secretary of juvenile services.

"Physical restraints should only be used as an absolute last resort and only where the physical safety of a child or others is in jeopardy," DeVore said. "It should not be used to demonstrate who's in control ... An excessive number of restraints is generally a pretty good indicator of a program that is in distress."

Hayden said Bowling Brook should be judged on its track record over many years of helping troubled youths, not a single tragic incident. "The school truly has been grieving for Isaiah and his family, there's no doubt about that," he said. "But we also know that we've done a lot of good for a lot of kids."

To be sure, for those students who successfully adapted to Bowling Brook's culture of achievement, the experience could be life-changing. They could earn college credit in classrooms, accolades on athletic fields, even a trip to Annapolis to meet lawmakers and lobbyists.

Ronald Johnson, 17, says Bowling Brook transformed him from a truant teenager who dabbled in drug dealing on East Baltimore street corners to an honor-roll student with plans for college.

Without Bowling Brook, "I would probably still be getting incarcerated," he said last week. "I'm glad that I was sent there." He said he was never restrained in his 10 months at the school.

Some students had a very different experience.

Peer pressure

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