Five workers disciplined after killing of teacher at Cheltenham

2 staff members at detention center fired, superintendent demoted, others suspended

March 18, 2010|By Peter Hermann | | Baltimore Sun reporter

Security lapses found after a teacher from Bel Air was killed at the troubled Cheltenham youth detention center in Prince George's County have prompted a leadership shake-up, including the demotion of the superintendent, the firings of two staffers and the suspensions of a program manager and a supervisor.

Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore said Thursday that he has temporarily suspended the rehabilitation program that the 13-year-old suspect was assigned to. The program for nonviolent offenders, designed to help kids who appear to be veering off track, was run out of Murphy Cottage, a low-security building outside Cheltenham's main gates.

DeVore, speaking at a news conference in Baltimore, repeatedly declined to link any of the disciplinary measures to specific failures that might have contributed to the death of Hannah E. Wheeling, whose partially clothed body was found outside the center's grounds on Feb. 18.

"Our review indicated that some youth were not being supervised according to our policies, our procedures and our directives," DeVore said.

The secretary said he was being deliberately vague and "walking a fine line" by divulging disciplinary action even as the criminal investigation continued at Cheltenham, a century-old complex that houses 120 delinquent youths. He said that on March 11, Maryland State Police detectives gave his Inspector General's Office permission to interview witnesses for the administrative review, which is continuing.

DeVore and his spokesman, Jay Cleary, declined to name any of the employees who were demoted, suspended or fired, citing state personnel laws. DeVore only identified the disciplined workers in general terms, saying a "high-level administrator" was demoted.

The superintendent of Cheltenham is listed on the state Web site as Quanetta West, but she no longer holds that position.

Bill Toohey, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Crime, Control and Prevention, said the acting superintendent of Cheltenham is Reggie Garnett, who also serves as Juvenile Services' assistant secretary of operations.

West was out of the office on Thursday. Reached on her cell phone in New Orleans, she declined to comment on her job status. "I'm not at liberty to say. I wasn't involved in the disciplinary process. I'm clueless."

Thursday marked one month since Wheeling's body was found, and staff members at Cheltenham held a moment of silence as DeVore spoke to reporters in Baltimore.

"The death of Hannah Wheeling has been a huge loss," he said. DeVore, who has worked with juvenile offenders for 40 years, and has served four years as head of Maryland juvenile services, said, "I've never lost a staff member."

George Myers, the president of the Maryland Professional Employees Council, a union that represents teachers, including the victim, said his members "are feeling positive" about the discipline but still feel more security and a cleaner building is necessary. "That is their primary concern at this time," he said.

But Patrick Moran, director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said his union plans to file a grievance protesting the firings of two members. He said the discipline was rushed to meet a 30-day deadline for taking action against employees.

Moran said management imposed rules that are impossible to follow unless staffers are in "two places at the same time." Those include requirements that detainees are continuously watched, which he said is impossible with current staffing levels.

"It gets to the point that they cannot be everywhere at every point in the day and still follow the polices and procedures," he said. "That is exactly the case here."

Moran said he does not know whether the two fired staffers had any direct connection to circumstances that led to Wheeling's death. But he criticized officials for terminating workers "at the bottom of the food chain" while more senior employees are merely punished.

Law enforcement authorities have said they are moving slowly and carefully to build a case against the teenage suspect, who has been moved to a secure juvenile facility in Western Maryland. Prosecutors have only 30 days to try him from the date he is charged, and there is no hurry because he is locked up for burglary.

About three months before the killing, sources have said, the youth was moved from secure confinement to the low-security Murphy Cottage to participate in the Re-Direct rehabilitation program with about 20 other youngsters. Sources have said the building is locked at all times from the inside and outside, and only select staff members and security have keys. No teachers have keys, officials have said.

Authorities have said a big question is how Wheeling's body got outside the building. Police believe she was killed Feb. 17 and her body found the next morning.

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