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Maryland lawmakers vow action on education of juvenile offenders

Maryland lawmakers said Monday they are planning stepped-up budget oversight and possibly new laws to respond to shortcomings in the state's system for educating juvenile offenders.

Responding to an investigation by The Baltimore Sun, the legislators promised to press state officials for an explanation of why the Maryland State Department of Education is failing to meet the standards it enforces in the state's 24 public school districts.

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Among other things, the investigation found that students have been denied services outlined in their federally mandated Individualized Instruction Plans and that there is a chronic shortage of teachers

State Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings, said he's scheduling a hearing to seek answers from the education agency and the Department of Juvenile Services.

"I certainly want answers on this," he said. "If [children's instruction plans] aren't being followed, they are having their constitutional rights violated."

Meanwhile, Gov. Larry Hogan vowed Monday to make improvements to the system a priority.

"The administration will continue to explore ways to ensure our youth, especially those most at-risk, are receiving the necessary resources and quality educational services they require for their own lives and the well-being of the state," said spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver Churchill.

State Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she intends to introduce a package of bills on juvenile justice. They include two dealing directly with the department's stewardship of the juvenile services department's school system, which serves an estimated 5,000 students a year at 14 state-run facilities.

Since 2013, the education department has had the sole responsibility for providing schooling for children who have been committed to treatment centers and juvenile services facilities after a finding of delinquency.

When the General Assembly convenes next month, Kelley said, she plans to introduce measures to raise the pay for teachers in the juvenile services program and to change the composition of the council that oversees it.

One of her bills, Kelley said, would require financial parity for those teachers with those in public school systems. According to state monitors, teachers in the program are underpaid compared with their peers in public school systems though they work a longer school year and deal with more challenging students.

"If that's true, that's a problem because you need to attract high professionals for kids that are troubled," said Zirkin, also a Baltimore County Democrat.

Kelley also said she plans legislation that would change the makeup of the Coordinating Council for Juvenile Services Educational Programs. That body, part of the education department, acts as a kind of school board overseeing instruction for youths in detention. Kelley said she wants to broaden its membership — now largely made up of Cabinet secretaries and other gubernatorial appointees.

"I'm not trying to upset everybody's apple cart, but I do want more light, more transparency and more expertise coming from a wider range of sources," she said.

Other lawmakers said they plan to interrogate officials involved in juvenile instruction when they bring their budgets before their committees, but do not yet have specific legislative remedies in mind.

"We have to do our due diligence and talk about what's going on," said Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat who sits on the House Appropriations Committee. "I hope that the agency will work with advocates and parents to come up with a plan on their own."

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State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, called the article's findings "extremely disturbing" and said it "opened my eyes to the depth of the problem. Ferguson said he would use his position on the budget and taxation subcommittee that oversees the education department to demand answers.

"Right now, it's a little early to know what a legislative fix would be," he said.

Del. Brett Wilson, a Hagerstown Republican who serves as a Washington County prosecutor, cautioned that it's hard to tell whether a child in juvenile detention has been failed by that system. He said one of the reasons young people act out in the first place is that they fall behind in school and become frustrated.

"Let's find out where the real letdown is originally," he said. "It could be a problem going back to the home district schools."

Wilson said the most efficient way to improve the system may be through administrative measures rather than passing bills. But Wilson said he hopes the House Judiciary Committee, on which he sits, will take a close look at the matter.

"I just want to legislate based on facts," he said. Wilson expressed skepticism about the idea of trying to achieve teacher pay parity through legislation, noting that there is no statewide standard for teacher compensation.

Karen Salmon, the assistant state school superintendent who oversees juvenile services education, said salaries for teachers in that program are already set on a basis that takes into account local salaries and the 12-month school schedule in juvenile facilities.

Salmon said it was "too early to say" whether legislation is needed to make changes in the program. She said the department welcomes legislators' questions.

"We're pretty transparent within the program,'" she said.

However, advocates for troubled juveniles contend the entire system needs an overhaul.

"It is unacceptable for students in state custody not to receive high-quality education services," said Alyssa R. Fieo, director of legal advocacy at the Maryland Disability Law Center. "It is a lost opportunity to meaningfully engage a population of students who have the greatest risk of dropping out once they transition from [a juvenile facility.] These students need more intensive and individualized services, not less."

Rais Akbar, juvenile justice director at Advocates for Children and Youth, said he was concerned when he toured classrooms at the juvenile services department's Western Maryland Children's Center in Hagerstown. Unlike classrooms in a school, he said, the rooms were grim, and noisy with sounds from staff walkie-talkies.

"My overall impression is that the staff there do work very hard, but there aren't enough of them," he said. "They're chronically understaffed. The kids in the program have a right to an education. You can't just say that the budget doesn't allow it, because they have a right to it."

Zirkin, who sponsored the original legislation giving the education department responsibility for teaching children in custody, said the agency needs to seek the resources to do its job.

"It's really cost-effective," he said. "If you save a kid from being in the criminal justice system, it's a huge savings in tax dollars."

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