ANNAPOLIS – Each weekly visit to the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School is proof enough for Daphne Patterson: Her 16-year-old son just isn’t getting an education.
He tells her how teenagers committed to Maryland’s only secure confinement and detention center for juvenile boys sit in classes packed with ninth- through 12th-graders, sometimes for just a couple hours a day.
“They really don’t get the proper schooling,” said Patterson, 37, of Dundalk. “It’s not supposed to be a jail, but it’s a jail . . . Even the adult system, they give you an education.”
The Maryland State Department of Education confirmed all Patterson’s complaints and more in a 31-page review written to officials at the private company running the school. The report, obtained by Capital New Service, said students were placed in wrong grade levels, and some teachers weren’t certified to instruct them. Library books were worn and outdated, and lab materials insufficient.
State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has called Hickey “a Maryland disgrace,” and “the farm team” for teenagers who are likely to end up in the adult prison system. Grasmick, state legislators and juvenile justice advocates agree: Something needs to change.
Hickey’s future hangs in the balance this year as legislators struggle over possible education reforms for about 250 juveniles there, who should follow through, and at what cost to the state.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich introduced legislation to pump $7.5 million into Hickey and allow the state Department of Education to oversee instruction, taking over for the Florida-based contractor Youth Services International. The money would pay for upgrades, personnel and new resources, more than tripling the $1.9 million spent annually.
Some question whether Maryland can afford that undertaking as the state scrambles to fill a $1.7 billion budget gap. And others wonder whether the Department of Education can handle one more job, what with new federal and state mandates.
As the legislation moves through committees in the Senate and House of Delegates this session, Patterson said she’ll keep pushing for change.
Patterson’s son, who she declined to identify for fear of repercussions, has been in and out of the system since he was 14 and got caught by police with her nephew’s gun near his high school. He spent time at Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George’s County, lived in a group home and recently went to Hickey for calling his probation officer “a punk.” He’d been there once before for violating his probation, she said.
Patterson admitted her son made mistakes, but she said he should have a shot at turning his life around with a decent education.
“Why not train them?” she asked. “Why not teach them so you can reform them before they come home?”
Baltimore resident Anthony Rainey, 20, said he landed in Hickey after stealing a car from a group home when he was 15 or 16. He said classes were “all mixed together” with teens of different ages. The school library, he said, was “a bookshelf in the classroom – that was it.”
Hickey, dubbed Maryland’s “deep-end facility” for juveniles, is the only center where teens can either stay for short periods or be committed for years at a time, sometimes until they turn 18, said Lee Towers, spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Justice.
The state has other short-term detention centers: Cheltenham; J. DeWeese Carter Center, Kent County; and Alfred D. Noyes Children’s Center, Montgomery County.
Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, The Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center and The Western Maryland Children’s Center, which have yet to open, also will house teens for short-term stays.
Like Hickey, Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center, a school for young women in Anne Arundel County, houses girls who are either committed or detained.
State officials reported more than 50 concerns in their on-site review of Hickey and decided the school is not up to Maryland standards. The department asked school officials and Youth Services International to respond to each claim by Jan. 29.
“We gave (the department) an extremely detailed response and corrected audit plan,” said Thomas Rapone, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Correctional Services Corp., YSI’s parent company. “They have not responded yet.”
Rapone said he would not discuss the company’s response until after he meets with state educators. He also would not comment on specific complaints, but said the company made “significant financial improvements” to Hickey and had to prove it would follow through.
Rapone said YSI has worked closely with the state and would like to continue to provide Hickey’s educational services.
“Our response was real,” he said. “And it was comprehensive.”
Donald Barrett, Hickey administrator, would not comment on the report or complaints, referring a reporter to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Juvenile justice advocates aren’t surprised to find Ehrlich taking an interest in Hickey operations – it was a campaign promise – but they want him to go further and allow the Department of Education to oversee programs at other juvenile centers as well.
“We’re supportive, but we hope it’s just a first step,” said Heather Ford of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. “Let the people who are experts at this provide education.”
Ehrlich has pledged to have state educators overhaul other centers in the future, but some lawmakers are questioning why his current proposal provides funding only for Hickey.
His spokeswoman, Shareese DeLeaver, said “the plans for future schools, we just don’t know at this point . . . it was a priority of this administration to start there.”
Towers pointed out YSI’s contract expires in March 2004, and because it can take time to find a new provider, now is the time for officials to be dealing with the issue.
But Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles County, said he’s uncomfortable spending $7.5 million on Hickey alone, especially without a clear sense of Ehrlich’s plans.
“To get there, with the budget picture the way it is . . . it is going to require some tough decisions,” Middleton said recently at a Finance Committee hearing. “I’m sorry, I’m wearing my budget hat, but the reality is there’s a $1.8 billion deficit.”
Complicating the issue is a recent report from legislative analysts that recommends Hickey funding be limited to $4.8 million. Analysts said the state should consider whether funding should be dedicated to early education, and whether administrators will be able to find enough teachers for the school.
“This is a risky undertaking by your department,” Sen. Ulysses Currie, D- Prince George’s, told Grasmick at a recent budget hearing. “We’ve never had a long-range plan for this agency.”
Grasmick later defended the idea, saying the state has never had “high- level professionals” delivering education at Hickey.
And juvenile justice officials contend the governor’s proposal is a logical start.
“We figure Hickey is probably the toughest area for this to work,” said H. Erle Schafer, the department’s legislative liaison. “I think we can cure the problems that were seen in that report.”