Youth in Maryland juvenile detention center taking online courses at Frederick Community College

Online college courses are opened to boys in Maryland's high-security juvenile detention center.

Youth detained in Maryland's highest-security male juvenile detention center are able to take online college courses at Frederick Community College under a new agreement between the college and the Maryland State Department of Education.

Juveniles housed at the Victor Cullen Center in Western Maryland can now take courses in English, biology, history, sociology and psychology. The program was announced Tuesday by state officials, who said two boys have begun taking courses. It comes as state officials continue to grapple with a history of problems in the state's educational program for juvenile offenders.

"If we truly believe in rehabilitating students, they need to have the same opportunities that a student would at a local high school, said Elizabeth Duffy, director of dual enrollment at Frederick Community College. "Education is the equalizer, and that can never be taken away from you."

For years youth at other state juvenile facilities in Western Maryland have been permitted to attend classes on the campus of nearby Garrett College. But the new program marks the first time students in the high-security Victor Cullen Center can take college courses.

The boys must have earned a GED or high school diploma to be eligible to take the courses.

"It's great for the kids, for them having something to do," said Keisha McCoy-Dailey, principal at the school in the Victor Cullen Center.

Students previously could only complete their high school education at the detention center.

"Now we're actually providing postsecondary education," McCoy-Dailey said. "We're giving them a start, which is most important."

Researchers say education is the best way to rehabilitate young offenders, but Maryland's juvenile services education program has struggled with chronic under staffing and poor programming.

Victor Cullen is the only place in Maryland that accepts young offenders who have been ordered into "hardware secure" rehabilitation by juvenile court judges. Teens at the 48-bed facility in Frederick County participate in a six to nine-month treatment program for mental health and substance abuse.

The new partnership with Frederick Community College was celebrated Friday at the Victor Cullen library.

"This is a great partnership that enhances the educational opportunities at Victor Cullen and lays the foundation for our kids' future success in college and beyond," Sam Abed, the state Secretary of Juvenile Services, said in a statement.

Under the agreement, the state will pay the college $314 per class, said Deborah Gibson, coordinator for guidance services at the state Juvenile Services Education program. The program serves about 550 youth daily.

Schools in Maryland's juvenile detention facilities have long been plagued by teacher shortages, a lack of high school courses and materials, scant access to technology and a dearth of vocational and extracurricular offerings. The schools, which advocates for detained juveniles say are woefully underfunded, were often described as "warehouses with worksheets."

The state Department of Education began taking over the schools in 2003 in an effort to improve them, but problems persisted. The Maryland chapter of the NAACP called in 2015 for a federal investigation into the state's education program for juvenile offenders.

During the 2016 session of the General Assembly lawmakers pledged increased funding to the schools, and state education officials promised to hire new teachers, fill vacancies and make improvements to the beleaguered system.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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