What next?

April 24, 2007

Forty-one minutes. That's how much time elapsed before counselors at the Bowling Brook Preparatory School called an ambulance for a 17-year-old student who had passed out while staffers restrained him. The staff allegedly held off calling 911 because they thought the unresponsive youth was faking. It was a miscalculation that likely cost Isaiah Simmons his life, and a shocking revelation in a case that has led to the closure of the Bowling Brook school and overdue reforms in the treatment of juvenile offenders in the state's care.

The account of the delay, provided by Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes, was enough to persuade a grand jury last week to indict six former Bowling Brook staffers on misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment in Mr. Simmons' Jan. 23 death. But the indictments don't end our concerns about treatment of juvenile offenders.

The Bowling Brook death prompted Donald W. DeVore, the new secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, to change state policy on training standards for staff in residential treatment facilities for juvenile offenders. And more important, he restricted restraint procedures at state and private juvenile institutions and required videotaping and the presence of medical personnel during certain restraints - all in an effort to discourage restraining procedures to discipline kids. That's a commendable goal.

But there's more work to be done, especially to ensure that the DJS inspection staff is properly overseeing these facilities, and that there is follow-up on identified concerns.

There also remains a dearth of appropriate treatment facilities in Maryland that can care for juvenile offenders, which makes the state's job tougher. On any day, there are dozens of children stuck in detention facilities, waiting for placement. But DJS plans to open a new center on the grounds of the old Victor Cullen Academy, with a capacity of 48, and it is developing a new system of evaluating juvenile offenders that Mr. DeVore says will go a long way toward housing them in the most appropriate setting.

For some time now, and through several administrations, the state juvenile justice system has operated like a big conveyor belt, moving kids through programs without determining if they are any better off once they leave the system. Secretary DeVore says accountability is key - and accountable is what he, too, must be.

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