Answers lacking in Cheltenham death

Our view: The Department of Juvenile Services needs to explain the lapses that led to teacher Hannah Wheeling's killing

February 28, 2010

The shocking slaying of a 65-year-old teacher at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County was a wake-up call to the risk of workplace violence faced by state workers at such institutions. The body of Hannah Wheeling, who had taught youths at the troubled institution since 2004, was found more than a week ago near the parking lot of the building where she worked. Police have identified a 13-year-old boy as a suspect.

This isn't the first time Cheltenham has drawn attention. As one of the state's 11 juvenile facilities for youths awaiting trial or disposition of their cases, it's had a long history of escapes, violence and staff shortages; until 2008, it was under the scrutiny of federal monitors. The brutal crime committed by Ms. Wheeling's assailant suggests that the problems there are far from over.

Employees and others familiar with the site say security procedures are often lax and that they fear for their safety because there aren't enough staff to properly supervise the approximately 80 youths housed there. Many of the buildings that make up the complex are deteriorating; poor lighting and a lack of security cameras in some areas add to the hazards. The combination of inadequate infrastructure and facilities, along with systemic problems in its security protocols, have left many Cheltenham staffers both fearful and demoralized.

Yet, instead of seeking to reassure workers that officials are doing everything possible to keep them safe, the Department of Juvenile Services seems bent on blocking inquiries into the incident by other state agencies that have an interest in resolving these difficulties. Neither the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit of the state attorney general's office nor the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency was allowed to interview Cheltenham's staffers after the incident, and the president of the union representing teachers there said his members had been told not to discuss the incident. There's a difference between keeping an ongoing investigation close to the vest and stonewalling the public, and DJS officials appear to have crossed that line.

No wonder lawmakers are now demanding an accounting of the incident from DJS Secretary Donald W. DeVore. State Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat, has asked the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to summon Mr. DeVore before the panel to so he could respond to their questions himself. We can't imagine there'll be any shortage of answers they'll be looking for.

Was a long-standing rule requiring staffers to be monitored at all times followed on the morning of Ms. Wheeling's death? Did the resident assistant who is supposed to provide security for classroom teachers whenever they're engaged with youths show up on time? Was there adequate staff overall to ensure employees' safety that day? Was the area where the victim's body was found under surveillance? And if the answer to any of these questions is no, why not? These are the kinds of questions that workers at Cheltenham or any other youth facility around the state want to have answered before they can feel safe again. Marlana Valdez, director of the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, says it's essential to determine what happened and what kinds of facility-related or systemic issues may have contributed to Ms. Wheeling's death in order to ensure that the safety of the remaining staffers and youths doesn't continue to be compromised.

Police and DJS investigators have legitimate reasons to protect the integrity of their investigation. But when that concern leads them to obstruct the activities of other agencies with a legal obligation to make their own independent inquiries and uncover problems, neither the public employees' interests in a safe and secure workplace nor those of the troubled youths housed in state facilities are served.

Readers respond

The death of Hannah Wheeling, a valued Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) employee, has sent a shockwave of sadness and concern through DJS and communities across Maryland. Understandably, people want answers as to how this tragedy occurred and how it could have been prevented. I assure you that there is no one who wants answers more than I do.

But, like everyone else, I have to wait to get my answers. Why? Because the Maryland State Police and local authorities are still investigating a criminal matter that will hopefully enable justice to prevail. The Murphy Cottage, the site of this terrible tragedy, is a crime scene. Any person not authorized by the Maryland State Police or local authorities to be at Murphy Cottage cannot be there.

Permitting another investigation to be conducted at the same time as the criminal investigation would interfere with the work of law enforcement and could compromise the integrity of the criminal case. The suggestion that the DJS is in any way "blocking" or "stonewalling" the investigations of other entities is simply absurd.

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