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As Long as We Remember...

September 1, 2010

A Curious Tale of Unequal Treatment

Kevin E. Dayhoff

As the 2010 Maryland gubernatorial contest muddles-on, comes the curious tale of two tragic incidences at separate juvenile justice system facilities, with two profoundly different results during the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley.


In the 2006 Maryland gubernatorial campaign, one of the several contentious issues discussed was the role and function of the Department of Parole and Probation and reform the juvenile justice system.


In the years since Governor O’Malley took office, tragedy has continued to plague the juvenile justice system; and yet, the casual observer would be hard-pressed to see it in the media as a campaign issue.


At about 7:45 A.M. on a cold February 18, 2010; the partially clothed body of 65-year-old instructor Hannah E. Wheeling was found outside a lower-security program for young offenders “at the long-troubled Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County,” according a July 28, 2010 article in The Baltimore Sun.


In a February 19th account of the tragic death, The Washington Post explained: “Cheltenham is operated by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services… The slaying is a serious setback for a juvenile facility with a checkered past…”


Five months after the murder, a few news reports indicated that a teenager, “who was 13 at the time of the incident and turned 14 in early July,” was charged with the crime.


The Baltimore Sun reported on August 20, “Employees broke safety protocol the day teacher was killed, report shows…


“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…”


Compare this to another tragedy on a cold January 23, three years ago in 2007, when Isaiah Simmons III, age 17, died after being restrained by staff at Bowling Brook Preparatory School in Middleburg.


Although the history of Bowling Brook extends for almost two centuries, it took Maryland officials about a month to force the closure of the celebrated facility on March 2, 2007.


For years Bowling Brook had accepted juvenile offenders into the academy. Since 1957, it had developed a reputation, not as a juvenile services facility but more like an elite private school that became a nationwide model for everything that could be done right in an effort to truly give young men a second chance and mold them into productive futures from an uncertain past.


Greg Garland wrote in The Baltimore Sun October 5, 2005: “Delmas Wood, an assistant secretary of juvenile services, says his department has been ‘very pleased’ with Bowling Brook…


“‘It's a fantastic program,’ said Susan B. Leviton, who heads the juvenile law clinic at the University of Maryland…


“Stacey Gurian-Sherman, who heads an advocacy group for families of delinquents, calls 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.’”


Compare the response to the Cheltenham tragedy to what Gadi Dechter and Andrew A. Green wrote in The Baltimore Sun on March 2, 2007, when the O’Malley administration closed the Bowling Brook facility in Carroll County:


“Gov. Martin O'Malley sharply criticized juvenile authorities yesterday for failing to respond to a school nurse's formal complaint last year about mistreatment of youths at the Bowling Brook Preparatory School...


“It's just unacceptable that a health professional would notify authorities there were problems and they didn't follow up,’ O'Malley said.”


Five months earlier, on February 18, The Washington Post quoted “Jay Cleary, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services, (to say) he could not comment immediately on the problems reported at the facility, but he cautioned that it was too soon to link them to Wheeling's killing.”


Mr. Cleary told The Post: “The investigation has just begun today. We have no idea what the facts are going to be when the investigation does conclude, so I think anything now that we would be trying to link or find conclusions for would be premature.”


Compare the two responses to the history of Bowling Brook and the long list of failures at Cheltenham, which only emerged from federal oversight in 2008, which included what the U.S. Justice Department “had found years earlier a ‘deeply disturbing degree of physical abuse’ by staff members…,” according to the February 18 Washington Post article.


Fast forward to today. Over three years later we are reminded of the wise proverb that ‘time heals all wounds’ (and the media has a short selective memory.)


Unfortunately that profound proverb was developed in a bygone era; long before the policy of empty political expediency took root and the course language of the never-ending blame-game grew like some nefarious wild vine stoked by selective partisan media amnesia, the steroids of convenient retrospective outrage, and smothered reason.


Of course, in today’s collective politically inspired group-grope that passes for the development of sound public policy, it's easier to criticize mistakes than to agree to remedies.


This is only made worse by people who develop ‘facts’ from premeditated politically motivated agenda-driven conclusions.


In the context of many events in the four years – you fill in the blanks with your observations – the question that begs to be asked is: “What moral compass are we using here?”


What moral compass caused the Bowling Brook facility in Carroll County to be closed by the O’Malley administration just weeks after the first serious lapse in over fifty years?


Yet the Cheltenham facility in Prince Georges County, with its long history of violence, malfeasance, and lapses – is still open – and essentially ignored by the Maryland media. Crickets chirping. I’m just asking.


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