Teaching young offenders

Our view: Justice center staff must feel safe

May 19, 2008

Teachers at the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center shouldn't have to worry about safety while trying to educate kids detained on criminal charges. They are dealing with youths who more likely than not have learning issues, behavioral problems or were truants before their arrests. Engaging them in learning in the short time they spend at the center - anywhere from 15 to 49 days - is a challenge from the start. The Department of Juvenile Services must ensure that its staffers are present in the classroom so that teachers will feel safer and kids may learn more, too.

The safety issue was raised in a March letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley signed by several teachers. As reported recently in The Sun, the teachers complained about a chaotic situation and a lack of response by DJS administrators. Overcrowded conditions at the 144-bed facility are partly to blame. The center lacks enough classrooms, and the 30 state Education Department employees also teach in the center's cafeteria, residential units or visitation area.

The justice center offers six hours of schooling a day for about 100 students who are awaiting trial on juvenile charges or placement in a treatment facility. As many as half are special education students, and usually there are more kids at the center than the available teachers can serve. On Friday, 146 kids were held there.

DJS policy requires a justice center staffer to be present in the classroom, which is also monitored by cameras, according to an agency spokeswoman. But the teachers complained that staff weren't always there. If the department expects the youths in its custody to benefit from the educational program, teachers must feel comfortable and safe in classrooms, not harassed and under duress. Fewer youngsters should be housed in the center for shorter lengths of stay. But that won't likely occur for another two years, when construction of a new state residential treatment facility should be finished.

Until then, classrooms should be properly staffed. DJS and state education officials owe it to teachers and their pupils.

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