Employees broke safety protocol the day teacher was killed, report shows

Teen at Cheltenham Youth Facility had been unsupervised for an hour

August 20, 2010|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

A series of professional failures at the troubled Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County left a 65-year-old teacher vulnerable to attack, according to a report released Friday by the Department of Juvenile Services, which also claims to have corrected most of the issues.

Literature instructor Hannah Wheeling was bludgeoned to death on school grounds Feb. 17, the same day facility employees improperly left her with a teenager — who was later charged in her death — for at least an hour, according to an investigation by the DJS inspector general.

The workers also lost track of the accused teen, didn't bother to find out why Wheeling's vehicle was still on site after normal work hours and broke rules governing who has access to entrance keys, according to the 13-page report, which was issued in March.

Two employees were fired as a result of the findings, two others were temporarily suspended and a fifth person was demoted, according to the DJS.

The agency chose to release the report Friday to coincide with the announcement of similar investigative findings and related citations by an occupational safety division of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

"We wanted to assure the public that we were aware of these issues … and we've already taken steps to correct them," said DJS spokesman Jay Cleary.

Cheltenham has a long history of problems and was recently released from federal oversight. In addition to the report's findings, the Department of Labor unit said that youth head counts weren't performed on schedule and residents' locations weren't properly logged, according to a copy of the citations obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public information request.

Cleary said the actions already taken by the DJS should satisfy the labor department. They include the personnel discipline, but also security training for all Cheltenham staff, a statewide policy requiring department chiefs to confirm that employees have left at the end of their shifts and increased random audits at DJS facilities.

"That is our goal: to make Cheltenham as safe as we can," Cleary said.

A separate report issued this month by the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit of the Maryland attorney general's office highlighted other problems at Cheltenham, including overcrowded classrooms, overworked staff and a shortage of radios for communication among employees.

The DJS said the circumstances in that report were overstated, however, and that they didn't compromise safety. The Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit is expected to release another report on Cheltenham next month.

Wheeling was an instructor at the facility's Murphy Shelter Program, which was housed in a low-security cottage outside Cheltenham's barbed-wire fences. The program supervises up to 20 juvenile offenders "who have not been deemed dangerous to themselves or others," according to state records.

She was in a classroom alone with a 13-year-old student the day she was killed. The boy has since been charged in her death, and a hearing is scheduled for next week to determine if he can be tried as an adult. The Sun is not naming the teen because he has been charged as a juvenile.

The Murphy program was shut down after the incident and likely will not be reopened until after the court proceedings are concluded, if at all, Cleary said.

"We still have a lot of work to do," Cleary said.

Angela Conyers Johnese, juvenile justice director of Advocates for Children and Youth, is troubled that it took a death to change procedures.

"We need to be more proactive" and constantly evaluate processes and procedures, Johnese said. "It is just very critical that the department … let this be a lesson and not wait for another incident to occur."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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