Worry met with a vow

Officials promise reply to teachers' complaints

May 14, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun Reporter

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore promised yesterday to "respond immediately" to complaints from teachers at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, where staff members have said they fear for their safety.

Grasmick and DeVore met separately yesterday with the teachers, days after an article in The Sun reported violence against education staff inside the juvenile lockup and some teachers' belief that officials were not listening to their concerns. The justice center staff has "lost control" of the young offenders, and "the situation seems to be deteriorating steadily," educators wrote in a letter to the governor, obtained last week by the newspaper.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has an interest in meeting soon with the teachers, his spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said yesterday.

"He is well aware of the issues that have been happening at the facility," Abbruzzese said. "It's a long-troubled agency that we've been trying to reform."

Thirty education employees and 233 juvenile services employees are assigned to the justice center on Gay Street, which has 144 beds for young offenders, most of whom are awaiting trial in juvenile court.

Grasmick's meeting was arranged so that she could "listen herself to concerns about safety and how the teachers feel about what's going on in there," said Education Department spokesman Bill Reinhard. "She intends to work on this immediately."

A reporter was not allowed to attend the hourlong meeting with Grasmick, and Reinhard said education officials could not "get into specifics" about what the teachers had to say because the discussion involved personnel matters.

DeVore described his afternoon meeting with the teachers as "very positive."

"They want to work together with us on this," he said.

He said teachers' concerns fell into three categories: poor posting of DJS staff in and near the classes, lack of communication between the two agencies, and worries that misbehavior in class was not translating to consequences for the youths.

DeVore said his agency has had "very good outcomes" working with education employees at other DJS facilities. "When I first arrived here [about 18 months ago], that was not the case."

"We need to work on this problem together," DeVore said.

The letter to O'Malley, written in March by computer teacher Charles Martin, included a memo signed by 14 of the 30 education employees. It said that, as state employees, they have a right to work in safe conditions.

Teacher Loretta Cunningham-Williams wrote in a supplementary letter that she had been attacked by a student who later returned to the justice center and threatened to "knock [her] out again."

Grasmick and DeVore wrote letters in April responding to the teachers, pledging that violence prevention is a priority at the justice center and encouraging the teachers to voice concerns to the facility's safety committee, formed earlier this year by DeVore.

But some teachers said in interviews last week that the internal complaint systems are not working. The teachers were not authorized to speak to the media and asked to remain anonymous for fear that they would lose their jobs.

A former office processing clerk at the justice center, Kahi Fraser, described how a boy injured her in March when he threw a desk at her. When she returned to work weeks later, the boy was still at the justice center, she said, and she stopped coming to work out of fear for her safety. She said she was fired this month for absenteeism.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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