Jail has `lost control' of teens

Teachers write to governor of fears, threats, assaults that are ignored

May 10, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

Teachers who work inside the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center say that the staff has "lost control" of the young offenders and that "the situation seems to be deteriorating steadily."

The teenage boys at the 144-bed facility on Gay Street must attend school for six hours each weekday and are taught by state Department of Education employees.

Scared and frustrated that their concerns about safety were not being addressed by the Department of Juvenile Services, 14 of those educators sent a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley in March describing gang activity, threats and assaults. One teacher wrote in a supplementary letter about being attacked by a youth who later threatened "to knock [her] out" again.

State education and juvenile services officials say they are working to make teachers feel safer in the youth lockup.

But in interviews this week, several education employees who signed the letter said that, despite written responses from juvenile services and schools administrators, their complaints have gone unaddressed. They also talked about other violence - including a youth-on-youth assault before school yesterday.

Responding on behalf of O'Malley, Juvenile Justice Secretary Donald. W. DeVore and state Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick wrote that the teachers should attend regularly scheduled safety meetings and continue communicating their concerns.

"They say, `Go through the system,'" said one teacher, who is not authorized to speak to the media and asked to remain anonymous for fear of being fired. "We've been trying to do that for years. It isn't working."

The letters add to other recent reports about violence at the justice center, where Baltimore youths deemed by judges to be a danger to themselves or others are detained until trial. Also housed there are delinquent youths awaiting long-term placement in other facilities, often in other states.

The first three months of this year have seen a 50 percent increase over the same period last year in youth-on-youth assaults and youth-on-staff assaults, according to a recent report from the state's independent juvenile justice monitor.

Education officials offered several possible explanations yesterday for the increased violence and tensions:

The principal at the justice center's school retired in December and was not permanently replaced until February. The facility population has been close to and sometimes exceeds its 144 capacity, but the school is staffed for about 100 students. The design of the facility does not include enough classroom space for that many students; makeshift classrooms, such as the cafeteria and the visitation room, are difficult to manage, teachers say.

Still, Mark Mechlinski, director of the correctional education program, said he was surprised by the March letters to O'Malley. He said that not long before, he had asked about safety in a meeting with nearly all of the education employees.

"I was told, point-blank, `We are not concerned about our safety.' They said they were not afraid to come to work," Mechlinski said. "I'm not sure what changed."

The letter to O'Malley was written by Charles W. Martin, who has been a justice center computer teacher for several years. "The staff feels that since we are employed by the state of Maryland, the state should ensure that we have a safe work environment," the letter says.

About 30 education employees and 233 juvenile services workers are assigned to the justice center.

"Student behavior reports and incident reports seem to be ignored," the memo says. "Feedback from teacher's attempts to process behavior incidents is never received."

One example is included in a letter by teacher Loretta Cunningham-Williams, which was also forwarded to O'Malley.

She wrote of being attacked by a youth in November during one of her classes. The boy was released to the community without ever being charged with her assault, she wrote. But he returned to the justice center on new charges in February, she wrote, and she has since endured his "verbal rants, threats and suggestive hand gestures."

On March 7, the day she wrote the letter, she said, he made "closed fist swings at me" and was "saying he was going to knock me out like he did before."

In an interview yesterday, Kahi Fraser, a former office processing clerk at the justice center, said a boy who threw a student desk at her was not charged. She said she went to Mercy Medical Center with a bruised rib after the March 4 assault.

When she returned to work March 31, she said, the juvenile was still at the justice center. She said she stopped going to work April 10 and was fired for absenteeism May 5.

"DJS didn't care. MSDE [the education department] didn't care. I saw that nothing had been done," Fraser said. "I started thinking, `Why am I still here?' I refused to stay in my position where I might not make it home safely to my son."

Katharine Oliver, an assistant state superintendent who oversees the justice center, said that in response to the employees' letters, a facility safety committee was formed and meets regularly. She said teachers are now receiving the same training in de-escaltion techniques as DJS workers.

"We have stepped up," she said. After hearing from a reporter that staff still felt disconnected, she said, "Our presence will be much more frequently felt there. We need to make sure we understand what's going on and why it is that teachers are not perceiving our support."

DeVore has said that the safety of all employees at the justice center is a top priority.

"We are using every imaginable resource and training to de-escalate violence at the justice center," DJS spokeswoman Tammy Brown said. "This has included close collaboration with all of our community partners and our state agency partners, including MSDE."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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