When state officials decided in 2004 to turn the education programs in juvenile justice facilities over to the Maryland State Department of Education, the plan was praised as a bold move to help rehabilitate some of the state's most vulnerable youths.
Finally, they thought, these classrooms would be run by experts, the same people who had built one of the nation's best public school systems. The changeover, part of a sweeping overhaul of the long-troubled juvenile justice system, was also seen as a recognition by state officials that a good education was a way to prevent recidivism among juvenile offenders.
But The Baltimore Sun has found that in overseeing the roughly 5,000 students a year in 14 state-run juvenile facilities, the state's Department of Education has failed to meet the very standards it enforces in public school districts. And though laws say that juvenile offenders are entitled to the same education as their peers in public schools, interviews and records show serious shortcomings.
State officials acknowledge problems in the schools for juvenile offenders — boys and girls who have committed crimes and have been sent to treatment centers or detention facilities. Officials say they will seek more resources for the program, which cost $17.7 million this year.
Those who monitor the system, including public defenders and the Maryland attorney general's office, point to a range of problems.
Some youths with disabilities have been denied critical services, such as help with reading and speech, outlined in their Individualized Education Plans, despite a mandate in federal law. Many of those students are not taught consistently by certified special education instructors. And there is a persistent shortage of teachers overall, with many having to teach multiple grade levels and subjects in a single class period.
Advocates and experts say that sloppy record-keeping and a lack of access to high school courses and the state curriculum have prevented some juvenile offenders from working toward a diploma, and that there is a dearth of the vocational, post-secondary and extracurricular programs that help students advance toward college or a career.
Taken together, the problems have sparked criticism that the schools — at facilities such as the Charles Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center — are warehousing teens, instead of preparing them to return to schools at home.
"These are the kids that others have thrown away, and bottom line, their constitutional rights are being violated," said Wandra Ashley-Williams, vice president of the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP. The organization has a federal complaint pending with the Office of Civil Rights and the Justice Department on behalf of students in Maryland's juvenile justice education programs.
State officials concede that the 10-year takeover of the schools, completed in 2013, has created educational inequities for the tens of thousands of youths who have gone through the Juvenile Services Education Program.
"It has been a long, slow process," said Dr. Jack Smith, the interim superintendent of Maryland public schools. "There's a sense of urgency now."
Many reform efforts have taken place in the past two years, officials acknowledge, with some coming to fruition only in the past two months.
The agency has made some key hires recently, including a superintendent to oversee the schools for juvenile offenders, officials say. They note that the amount of time students spend in classrooms has increased to six hours a day and that the state has aligned curriculum standards in the juvenile justice schools with those in public schools.
The juvenile justice schools got Internet access this month, and two schools are piloting online courses to make sure that students leave with credits they can use toward graduation. The teens, who have largely been taught middle school material, have recently received high school English and math textbooks.
The renewed focus on education reforms has been praised by experts. But they note that the quality of the youths' schooling takes a back seat to reforms of other systemic problems they may face within the facilities, such as abuse and neglect.
"When things are bad in a juvenile correctional setting, and kids are physically or emotionally harmed, that becomes the top priority," said Peter Leone, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park who has studied juvenile justice education for 30 years. "But when a kid gets a really, really crappy education, nobody bleeds."
An entrenched problem
Maryland is not alone in confronting the problems of educating youths in a sprawling juvenile justice system, where youths might stay for a couple of weeks or for years. A November report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center said few states are providing students in juvenile facilities with schooling that matches that in public schools.
Last year, recognizing the lackluster education provided to the nation's 60,000 incarcerated youths, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. released guidelines for states and called a high-quality correctional education "one of the most effective crime-prevention tools we have."
If offenders fall further behind in their schooling while in the juvenile justice system, they often drop out and are then more likely to wind up in an adult prison. Research shows that effective juvenile education programs can help break that grim cycle.
The Duncan-Holder report stressed that education can cut the social and financial costs of recidivism, including the $88,000 annual average cost to confine a juvenile. An estimated 55 percent of youth offenders are rearrested within a year of their release, but inmates of all ages are half as likely to be reincarcerated if they pursue a college degree, the officials said.
Jacques Smith, who was hired in 2013 to oversee curriculum in Maryland's juvenile justice schools, believes the state has written off the young offenders. He quit in January after being unable to fix what he felt were mostly remedial reading and math classes.
The culture of the Juvenile Services Education Program "says these kids are criminals and they don't deserve all of this attention and money," said Smith, who has worked in Maryland schools for 30 years. "I believe the culture of the schools is to keep that program ... low-profile, to warehouse kids and not cause problems for anybody," including the State Department of Education.
Roughly 1,100 Maryland youths were in a detention center or treatment facility on any given day in fiscal year 2014, the most recent for which data is available. That year, the Department of Juvenile Services logged 6,300 placements of youths; they came primarily from Baltimore and Prince George's County, and were overwhelmingly black and male.
Their most common crimes were theft, which accounted for 21 percent of the commitments, and second-degree assault, which made up 18 percent.
The youths came with a long list of educational challenges, including special education needs, a lag of several grade levels behind, and records of suspensions or expulsions.
Freddie Gray, 25, who died in April after suffering a spinal injury in police custody, sparking unrest in Baltimore, was among the thousands of city students transferred into the juvenile program.
According to records obtained by The Sun, Gray, who suffered lead poisoning as a child and was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, had an Individualized Education Plan that would have provided special education services and accommodations throughout his educational career.
At age 18, Gray was in 10th grade at Carver Vocational-Technical High School when he was transferred to a juvenile justice facility. It is unclear why that occurred, but as an adult he was arrested more than 15 times, mainly on drug charges.
The Gray family's attorney declined to comment for this article.
That year, 2008, was the last tracking of Gray in the city school system. He was assigned the code T-22, denoting that his education was in the hands in the state corrections system. That year, 384 other Baltimore students were also assigned that code.
In the years since, more than 3,000 Baltimore youths have entered the juvenile justice system.
'A constitutional right'
Maryland's schools for young offenders were being run by the Department of Juvenile Justice when then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made overhauling the juvenile justice system a hallmark of his first legislative session. The reforms were spurred by violence and turmoil in some of the state's largest facilities.
In 2004, the Republican signed legislation requiring the state's Department of Education to begin taking control of the schools.
The change was challenging but necessary, he said last week. "This is not a discretionary act by government, it's a constitutional right. And you're talking about kids who, if they fail here, they're going to become the most dangerous population of your state."
At the time, state officials were grappling with a U.S. Justice Department investigation into conditions at two facilities, the Hickey School in Parkville and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County, where youths were found to have been denied proper medical and mental health care, sanitation and education.
The investigation resulted in a settlement agreement, which was later expanded to include the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center. The state was required to appoint an education supervisor at each facility, improve special education services and offer more vocational programs. After the state showed compliance, the cases were closed by 2010.
Since Maryland's Department of Education assumed control over all 14 of the state's juvenile schools in July 2013, complaints have again begun to mount.
Grace Reusing, a public defender in the Juvenile Protection Division, has filed a dozen complaints on behalf of her clients and for students of similar backgrounds in several facilities. The complaints allege violations of special education laws, and many have the same themes: Individualized Education Plans riddled with inaccuracies, or students being denied services because of a lack of school resources.
Such complaints are investigated by the Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services within the state Department of Education.
Recent complaints — the state responded to the latest batch last month — portray students with profiles strikingly similar to Gray's.
For example, Reusing filed a complaint on behalf of a Baltimore teen who had suffered lead poisoning, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was being denied special education services. According to the complaint, his special education records were revised based on availability of staff, not his needs.
State investigators found that the student's Individualized Education Plan had been amended improperly, limiting the hours of specialized instruction. Investigators also found that delays in getting his educational record and mix-ups with his courses had prevented him from earning credits in classes needed for graduation.
State investigators ordered the juvenile services program to document efforts to make up services to students affected in this, and other complaints, by early next year.
The most consistent review of the education program comes quarterly from the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit in the state attorney general's office.
The report released this month detailed each facility's limited educational and vocational programs, teacher shortages, lack of Internet access and inconsistent instruction. Monitors concluded that the system would not improve without more funding.
This year, the program's budget is $17.7 million, with 91 percent allocated for salaries.
Even though a large part of the budget is spent on salaries, state monitors noted that the teachers are underpaid compared with those in public school systems across the state. They work year-round, and with more challenging students.
Experts and advocates say the schools need all of the resources of a public school system and more, because of the overwhelming needs of students. Talbot County public schools, a comparable district in size, serves roughly 4,500 students with a $50 million budget.
Nick Moroney, director of the juvenile justice monitoring unit, said the state has always been responsive to his office's findings but has not developed a sustainable solution.
"What we've found is that as soon as something is addressed, something else falls away," he said. "It's a lot of kids and a lot of work given their staffing, but it's not an excuse. If you need more, you make a stink about it."
'On the front lines'
At the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center, a recently renovated coed detention facility in Rockville, classes last week had the feel of those at a public school. Classrooms were equipped with SmartBoards, and posters of multiplication tables and grammar rules lined the walls. There were plenty of computers, and shelves held textbooks in algebra and biology, as well as classics such as "The Scarlet Letter."
In an English class, students engaged in a lesson on critical thinking, figuring out brain teasers their teacher had posed. In an office systems class, students learned the basics of creating a Microsoft Word document.
Some individualized instruction took place. One youth was receiving special education instruction in a separate classroom. In math class, two girls worked by themselves — one on Algebra II, the other studying for her SATs.
Teacher Crystal Proctor had worked in public schools in Washington for 10 years before moving to the juvenile justice system.
"I saw a lot of my kids go in this direction, and I wanted to be on the front lines," Proctor said. "In public school, they come in with a lot of issues that we don't know about, and here, we know and address them. And there's more empathy in this environment."
At Noyes, students receive daily instruction in English, math and science, and rotate between social studies and career research and development. They are also offered an office systems management course, and can earn certificates in programs such as ServSafe, a food handling and hygiene program suitable for restaurant jobs.
"We try to make it as similar to public school as we can," said Lisa Nelson, a field director in the juvenile services education program.
But the scene at Noyes stands in contrast to the experience of some students who have left juvenile facilities in recent months.
"School was a joke," said a 19-year-old recently released after spending five months in a Western Maryland youth camp for an undisclosed offense. "We just sit in the classroom. Sometimes we might do something, sometimes we don't. In them classes, all I had to do is show up, do a little bit of work and I got a grade."
The teen, now in his senior year at a public high school, said he did not receive the special education services outlined in his Individualized Education Plan, which included help with reading. He often got frustrated.
"If the work is too hard for me, I'm not going to do it," said the teen, who is not being identified because he is still involved in the juvenile justice system, where individual records are sealed from the public. "Sometimes if I didn't do it, they would take me out of that class and put me in the dorm room the rest of the class."
A 17-year-old recalled that he traded snacks in exchange for copying work from other students during his five-month commitment for burglary, so he could earn points toward his release. "You do what you have to do," he said.
The teen said he attended classes with students of all ages. They all were taught the same thing, from teachers who handled more than one subject.
He said that when he sought out a teacher who was to provide help mandated on his Individualized Education Plan, he often could not find her. At other times, he said he was told, "You're not the only kid I have."
He never thought the education he was receiving in the facility would matter when he left.
"When you go to your home school, you're not going to know [anything]," he said. "But you'll have the credits."
A second chance
Maryland education officials acknowledge that the complaints from public defenders have fueled recent reforms. Last year, they say, the state Department of Education shifted its focus to making the juvenile education program, in essence, the state's 25th school system.
"It's our plan to see the students who are served in these 14 schools receive everything that a regular, comprehensive public school can provide them. That's their future," said Smith, the interim superintendent.
Smith had supervised the juvenile education program when he was chief academic officer in 2013, and acknowledged that the Department of Education was not equipped or prepared to take on those schools.
The department "had not been in the school-running business," he said. "It's been in the business of supporting school districts that ran schools. That's a huge distinction."
That meant adjusting to its new role as something more than a technical support and compliance agency — to one now responsible for directly providing services to students. "We had adults in this [department], who had no idea what that meant," Smith said.
To guide that work, the department has drafted a strategic plan that maps out improvements over the next two years. Leone, the national expert, will serve as a consultant to monitor implementation.
Karen Salmon, who served for 10 years as the superintendent of Talbot County schools, joined the department in August as the assistant state superintendent of career and college readiness. Among her top priorities is increasing the staff in the juvenile justice schools — there are now 170 employees, including 118 teachers — and decreasing its 15 percent vacancy rate.
State officials acknowledge that the staff shortages are requiring educators to handle courses they are not certified to teach.
Salmon has also pushed to get Internet filters up to Department of Juvenile Services standards in January, so students can make better use of technology. High school textbooks have recently been distributed for English and math, and have been ordered for science and social studies.
Meanwhile, intensive training is taking place with special education teachers and administrators to ensure that Individualized Education Plans are being followed according to the law, officials said.
Salmon said her visits to the facilities, where teachers are checked with metal detectors upon entry and walk past cells on their way to classrooms, is shaping her approach to the job.
"For some kids, it's the last step before they don't have any other options," Salmon said. "I can't help who they place there. But I can make a difference in what happens when they are there in terms of school."
Officials say they want to hold themselves more accountable for the academic outcomes.
Although youths take standardized assessment tests in the juvenile justice schools, there is no data on system-wide performance. The scores count toward the students' home-based school districts.
For years, the juvenile justice schools have reported gains on a grade-level diagnostic exam that is given to students shortly after they are placed in facilities and repeated every 30 to 60 days. The schools also report the number of students who earn a GED — 52 in the last fiscal year.
But advocates and former educators have criticized that data as an inaccurate measure of whether students are receiving an appropriate public school education.
Salmon said the diagnostic exam was considered "the one test that apparently [staff] felt was valid and reliable to make assumptions," about youths progress while in the facility.
She said she is re-evaluating whether the exam will continue.
The youth camp model
As state officials scramble to improve the schools, some point to the Western Maryland youth camps as models for success. Former educators say the camps combined academic work with robust extracurricular, vocational and community programs — until the schools were taken over by the Department of Education and other changes were made by the Department of Juvenile Services.
"We couldn't change what happened before they got to us, but we felt we could change them while they were there," said Mike Lewis, who served as principal of the camps' schools for 17 years.
Youths helped raise fish for the Department of Natural Resources, tested water quality in streams, dug for fossils in caves for the Smithsonian Institution, and participated in performance arts programs at Frostburg State University. They also engaged in community service that earned them $1,000 scholarships from organizations such as AmeriCorps.
In 2012, shortly after Sam Abed was appointed secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, he established new protocols that limited off-grounds travel.
Jay Cleary, Abed's chief of staff, said a temporary travel ban was put in place after two students ran away during a 2012 outing. Travel now requires approval, and officials are guided by the responsibility to maintain secure facilities.
"That means that while we strive for an environment that is conducive to treatment and education, we still have to make sure the youth are safe, the staff is safe, and the surrounding community is safe," he said.
The following year, as the state prepared to take control of the schools, Lewis said, officials began directing the camps to abandon their instructional methods — packets of work tailored to where a student left off in school — in order to transition to the state's curriculum.
That was embraced, Lewis said, until there were signs of trouble: The new schedule included only two core content subjects, English and math. Then the camps began receiving transcripts from schools that showed a student had earned an entire credit in one month. Public high schools began calling to challenge the credits coming from the camp schools. In the transition, some students lost months of work, state officials have acknowledged.
"I kind of became a little voice from the mountain saying, 'This is wrong,'"' Lewis recalled. "It was an unmitigated disaster from the beginning for our kids."
Lewis was among the one-third of staff members who were let go by the state Education Department in 2013, when the agency required everyone at the camps to reapply for their jobs. Agency officials said the move was part of its takeover strategy for every school.
Teacher Gerald Harman bristled at the new state control. He said he was required to teach basic math content but issue credits for higher-level courses such as algebra. Although he had been rehired by the state Education Department to continue working in the camps, he retired, in part, over the credit issue — which state officials deny ordering.
"I said I was not going to ... do one thing and send paperwork showing another," Harman said. "I had to retire early. I'm losing 30 percent a year to the day I die, but I chose that over the alternative."
Shawn Sessa, who worked in the youth camps for 10 years and taught special education, said he also felt compromised by the new, centralized system.
Under the state Education Department, Sessa said, "we changed every [Individualized Education Plan] to suit us, not the kids." He said he deleted services from the plans, or significantly reduced the time allotted for them.
One of the camps' most highly praised programs was at the Backbone Mountain Youth Center, where more than 200 students were able to take courses at Garrett Community College from 2006 to 2012. The program is still in existence, but serves half the number of students.
State officials said it is one of the many programs they hope to "build back up."
Joe Nieberding, now a 25-year-old Army sergeant, extended his stay at Backbone Mountain in 2008 to earn college credits. He jumped at the chance to maximize his educational opportunities while serving his term for an offense he declined to disclose.
While at Backbone, Nieberding earned four credits in courses taught by Garrett faculty. After his release from the juvenile justice system, the Baltimore native returned to Garrett County to continue his education for three semesters before joining the Army.
"I definitely wouldn't have went to college if they didn't have that at Backbone. I might have joined [the military] without any college, but I'd have been in a real tough spot," said Nieberding, an electronic warfare specialist stationed in Georgia.
Jacques Smith, the former administrator who oversaw some of the youth camps' transition, hopes state officials follow through on the mission to provide a rigorous education and give youths a second chance.
"For a youth who is considered at-risk, this could be your chance to catch up," he said. "You have a judge looking at your report card, you have small class sizes, you could have great facilities and great teachers. They deserve the state's best shot."
As part of its continuing coverage of Freddie Gray's death, The Baltimore Sun is examining some of the intractable problems that affected his life — and still trouble thousands of city residents. This series of articles has also focused on lead poisoning, segregation in public housing and the drug economy.