Under pressure from the state, officials at Bowling Brook Preparatory School have agreed to close the 50-year-old reformatory where a student died five weeks ago while being restrained by staff.
The privately run residential program in Carroll County issued a statement that it will shut down Friday even as construction crews kept working on an addition funded in part by the state.
In Annapolis, Maryland's new juvenile services secretary, Donald W. DeVore, said his agency probably would have acted to revoke Bowling Brook's license if the once highly regarded program for juvenile offenders hadn't decided on its own to close.
"I want to tell you that it's with a heavy heart that I make this announcement," DeVore said. "Bowling Brook has a large constituency throughout the state, and it is a very sad time for many people."
But he said he felt he had "no option" but to remove all Maryland youths from the facility, given concerns about its practices.
Word of the closing came as authorities continued to investigate the death Jan. 23 of Isaiah Simmons, 17, of East Baltimore. Witnesses have said they saw Bowling Brook counselors sit on the struggling teen until he passed out during a restraint that lasted three hours. Bowling Brook officials have denied any improper conduct.
The Sun reported Thursday that five months before Simmons' death, Bowling Brook's nurse notified the Department of Juvenile Services that she was concerned for the safety of youths at the school, but state officials never responded.
In her written complaint, she said that a youth had been badly bruised and scraped while being restrained by staff and that Bowling Brook's director chastised her for sending the student to the hospital.
The Simmons family expressed relief at the news the school will close.
"We're happy because this ensures that no other juveniles will be injured while under the care of Bowling Brook. Apparently it was not a very safe environment for children," said Danielle Carter, Simmons' sister.
DeVore, who was sworn in as juvenile services secretary this week, said he is implementing several reform measures in response to the Bowling Brook controversy.
He said his agency will within 30 days issue guidelines for both state and privately run programs for juveniles on the proper use of restraint. Under those rules, staff at all facilities that handle youths in state custody will have to be trained by state-approved instructors. The state has exercised virtually no oversight of staff training at private facilities.
Students and former Bowling Brook employees have said it was not unusual for youths to be held to the ground by staff, sometimes for hours, as a way of controlling disruptive behavior or punishing disobedience. Experts say that putting pressure on a person's back while he is face down can lead to death.
DeVore said his department also will conduct an "inspection sweep" of all private juvenile facilities within the next 90 days to make sure they are operating in a safe manner.
And officials will begin interviewing youths after they leave both state and private facilities so they can speak more freely about any problems or concerns about their experience, he said.
DeVore acknowledged that Bowling Brook's closure compounds the state's already critical shortage of "residential beds" for juvenile offenders among state-run and privately run facilities. The Ehrlich administration closed most of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County in 2005 and cut the number of beds at other state programs. Some students have been sent to programs in other states as a result.
DeVore said he will soon announce plans to expand the state's capacity to treat children, and he said it was a priority of his department to keep juvenile offenders in Maryland when possible.
At the time of Simmons' death, Bowling Brook was housing 170 juvenile offenders - 74 from Maryland and most of the rest from Pennsylvania.
Only eight juvenile offenders placed by Maryland were there as of yesterday, along with 41 from Pennsylvania. All will be removed by Friday, when the school will be shut, officials said.
State Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a longtime critic of Maryland's juvenile justice programs, said he has been pleased with DeVore's handling of the crisis.
"I think we will very quickly see the new secretary opening up at least one new facility," said Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.
He said he thinks the state should re-open the Victor Cullen Academy in Frederick County, which closed in 2002. State officials have talked about re-opening the school as a 48-bed residential program.
The state's chief public defender said yesterday that the closure of Bowling Brook would throw the state into a "crisis" unless the Department of Juvenile Services opens additional programs to house youth offenders.
"If they don't open some new facilities close to where the families of these kids live," said Nancy Forster, "then they most certainly are in a crisis."
The future plans for Bowling Brook were unclear yesterday.
Although the school announced it would close next week, its written statement seemed to suggest that it could reopen later.
The statement said the school, in Keymar, "remains committed to serving its mission of helping young men make positive changes in their lives and becoming productive citizens" and that it is "proud of its 50-year history of fulfilling that mission."
A school spokesman declined to say whether that meant Bowling Brook hoped to reopen.
DeVore said that an institution's license automatically becomes invalid when it decides to close. He said he was "not prepared at the moment to talk about the future" possibility of Bowling Brook reopening.
In their written statement, Bowling Brook officials expressed sympathy to Simmons' family.
"Since the death of Isaiah Simmons, Bowling Brook has cooperated fully with the Department of Juvenile Services and other investigators, and Bowling Brook will continue its cooperation," the statement said.
The school's closure comes amid an expansion that began in 2001 and that has been funded in part with grants from the state of Maryland.
"Please excuse our mess while we expand," reads a sign near the entrance. The current construction work is for a vocational training school on the campus.
Legislative analysts said the school has received about $2.3 million in state grants, funded through bond issues, since 2001 to build new dorms and other facilities and equip them.
The school housed 39 youths the first year it received state funds and grew rapidly until it was housing 170 this year.
The school began operations in 1957 at a home situated on a 264-acre farm.
It was funded with money from the will of Raymond I. Richardson, who established a foundation to run a "charitable institution for orphan boys, indigent boys and other boys who may be ... in need of the assistance of this foundation."
Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore says his agency will take these steps:
• Issue guidelines for both state and privately run programs for juveniles on the proper use of restraint.
• Conduct an "inspection sweep" of all private facilities to make sure they are operating in a safe manner.
• Interview youths after they leave both state and private facilities so they can speak freely about any problems.
• Develop new training standards for crisis intervention.