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March 14, 2007

Bowling Brook: A Sad Tale

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On January 23 one of the very young men that Bowling Brook Preparatory Academy had tried so hard to mold into a lifetime of hope and a future, 17-year-old Isaiah Simmons III, died at the school.

The death of the young man is tragic and our hearts and prayers go out to his family. This incident is exacerbated by the fact that the young man, who had expressed anger over an absent father, leaves behind a 22-month-old daughter.

In published accounts, the mother of his child, a 10th grade student, "was having a hard time accepting Simmons' death."

Simmons, who had only arrived at the academy two weeks earlier, ran afoul of the law after committing an armed robbery. It was reported he "used a box cutter to rob another juvenile of a cell phone."

He died while being physically restrained after it is alleged he threatened to shoot another student. On January 27, a Bowling Brook press release stated that "when Isaiah became threatening, our staff responded for his safety and the safety of others. Isaiah's aggressive behavior continued over a period of time during which he was restrained humanely consistent with state-approved discipline policies and counseled throughout to de-escalate the crisis."

A transcript of the 911 tape reveals a Bowling Brook employee said: "It was the same thing we do all the time when we have an aggressive kid. I don't know what happened. He was in a restraint, and then he stopped responding."

For many years Bowling Brook, which was founded in 1957, has accepted juvenile offenders. On January 23 there were 170 there. Seventy-four were guests of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

Bowling Brook had developed a reputation, not so much as a juvenile services facility, but more like an elite private school that became a nationwide model for everything that could be done right to truly give young men a second chance and mold them into productive futures from an uncertain past.

In recent years, as the state has poured $737,000 into capital improvements for the facility, Bowling Brook Academy had come to be considered "a highly touted private residential treatment facility for aggressively adjudicated young men" according to the 2004 - 2005 annual report of the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor.

As other state-run juvenile facilities were being closed, Bowling Brook, with the encouragement, aid, and support of the state, had grown to fill a needed gap to treat juvenile offenders as their numbers exploded.

The numbers are mind-numbingly. Gov. Martin O'Malley's "Transition Committee for Juvenile Services Report," issued on February 21, reported that: "In 2005, the agency served 4,888 youth on probation, 1,681 in community-based aftercare, and over 2,400 in committed placements. The Department received over 53,000 intake referrals in 2005, but many youth were referred multiple times. The Committee strongly recommends that the new administration proceed quickly with making strategic, evidence-based reforms and that it avoid repeating the mistakes of past administrations by addressing problems proactively."

These numbers have been increasing for many years. The Maryland General Assembly's response, even after legislation was enacted in 2004 mandating regional facilities of no more than 48 juvenile offenders, was to overwhelmingly pass legislation in 2005 exempting Bowling Brook from the 48 juvenile capacity limit.

The state's reliance on Bowling Brook had become increasingly desperate after Maryland closed the Hickey School in 2005 after a federal lawsuit accused the state of failing to protect juvenile offenders from physical violence. Over and over again, Bowling Brook stepped up to the plate to fill in the gaps.

After investigating the Hickey School and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County for two years, the U. S. Justice Department issued a scathing report in 2004. It revealed that there was a "deeply disturbing degree of physical abuse" by staff and examples "in which staff members did not intervene in fights." according to The Washington Post.

For many years and several administrations, Maryland has grappled with how to respond to what some consider an epidemic of youthful offenders. There has been legislation, reports, outside independent committees, joint legislative committees, public outcry, lawsuits, and an enormous amount of money spent.

However, the governor's transition committee, which had examined the Department of Juvenile Services, said in the second sentence of their report: "We discovered an agency that is dangerously dysfunctional, trapped in a cycle of reacting to scandals and deferring proactive reforms."

But throughout all the years of hand-wringing and the gnashing of teeth over what to do about an adequate and appropriate approach to saving youthful offenders and restoring them to productive lives; one institution was being heaped with praise - Bowling Brook.

In an October 5, 2005, Baltimore Sun article, "Susan B. Leviton, who heads the juvenile law clinic at the University of Maryland," was quoted as saying "It's a fantastic program."

The article noted that Stacey Gurian-Sherman, who heads an advocacy group for families of delinquents, called Bowling Brook "a model residential facility, and it's right in our own backyard. The one drawback to Bowling Brook is there is only one of them. We need to be building more Bowling Brooks."

At a time when Maryland continues to face a structural deficit, the article recited that "the cost of the nonprofit school is $41,000 a year per student - less than the $65,000 a year the state spends to keep a youth at Hickey."

Yet, on March 2 another tragedy occurred when it was announced that the Bowling Brook would close. For many the decision to close the school is illogical at best. Why not meaningfully address and correct the factors that precipitated the tragedy but otherwise support the one very juvenile services facility in the state that is making a positive difference. The tragic death of this young man is a situational problem - not systemic. Fix the problem.

This tragedy shocks everyone, but the reaction to a problem must never exacerbate it or exceed prudence. Ironically, the closure of Bowling Brook is now part of the problem. Closing the facility is certainly not "addressing problems proactively" with "strategic, evidence-based reforms."

Within days of the closure announcement, the governor announced the need to spend $6.8 million dollars to re-open the Victor Cullen juvenile facility - for 48 students. Spending $6.8M on Victor Cullen is not the answer. The answer is Bowling Brook.

Since the announcement that Bowling Brook was closing, public officials and private citizens alike have publicly touted Bowling Brook for the good work they have accomplished with hundreds - if not thousands - of young men over the last 50 years and how the academy has positively interwoven itself into the Carroll County community.

A letter being circulated by the Junior Woman's Club of Westminster says: "On Oct 5, 2005, the Baltimore Sun quoted an 86% success rate. Only 14% of the youth were arrested or referred back to the state agency within a year of their release. The state average for group homes is 50%, but we have heard as low as 10% success rates. 80% of these boys are graduating from High School. We hate to see the success of the program overrun by this one failure."

It is rare that a community rallies to have a juvenile facility in its own backyard. But Bowling Brook is one of the exceptional examples of leadership and excellence in our world today.

This is the third Maryland administration in a row to get handed this mess. The solution is to avoid past mistakes and build upon what has been done well. Bowling Brook has done it well and is part of the solution.

In a clearer light and with a fresh look, many hope that Governor O'Malley will reassess the decision to close the facility.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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