Unanswered questions

The Baltimore Sun

With the Bowling Brook Preparatory School set to close Friday and the death of student Isaiah Simmons ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner, attention shifts to a Carroll County grand jury and possible criminal charges against staff who were restraining the 17-year-old when he died Jan. 23. But the focus shouldn't remain only there.

The state Department of Juvenile Services, which licenses and inspects facilities in which it places troubled youths, has as much to answer for as does the residential center in Carroll County. Its oversight of such facilities is in question.

The death of Mr. Simmons has upended the Bowling Brook school, which has been operating for 50 years and was well-regarded. The last of the 70 or so Maryland juveniles placed at Bowling Brook were removed last week as the school announced it would close Friday. The school was noted for turning around troubled kids with its emphasis on athletics and was expanding with state financial help.

But it is now the subject of an FBI investigation for possible civil rights violations. The state's oversight of the facility also came into question after The Sun reported that a nurse at Bowling Brook had written to the state about the school's disciplinary methods in August - concerns that went unanswered until Mr. Simmons' death. The nurse also said she had received a reprimand from her superiors for sending one youth who had been badly bruised during a restraint to a hospital.

The state, which has had monitors at Bowling Brook since the teenager died, has yet to answer for its actions: How often did it inspect the facility, and what did it find? We know now that DJS ignored one complaint about restraint methods at the school. Were there others, and were they investigated? What has the state's in-house review found? Is the DJS inspection unit doing its job?

Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore, on the job less than two weeks, has initiated several measures to ensure juvenile offenders' safety. They include an inspections sweep of all private facilities within 90 days, issuance of new restraint guidelines for state-operated and state-licensed youth facilities and exit interviews with students. We look forward to what they reveal.

DJS has relied on private facilities more and more in recent years as it closed or scaled back large, state-run detention centers. That requires rigorous oversight to ensure that juvenile offenders are properly cared for at private institutions. The jury is still out on that one.

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