Bowling Brook's growing pains

The Baltimore Sun

In a field where failure is the norm, the Bowling Brook Preparatory School seemed to be the rare program that worked.

Judges sent young armed robbers there, and they emerged college-bound high school graduates. A rural community watched with approval as urban delinquents became young gentlemen who volunteered at town fairs and pancake breakfasts. Lawmakers in Annapolis took notice, showering the privately run reformatory with millions in construction dollars so it could house and rehabilitate more of the state's swelling population of juvenile offenders.

But over the past few years, troubling changes were taking place inside the beige brick buildings of the sprawling campus tucked amid Carroll County farms, an investigation by The Sun has found.

As Bowling Brook expanded to take in many more youths, the staff increasingly used force to control them, former employees say. Indeed, the practice of physically restraining students - pinning them to the ground, often face down, sometimes for hours - became a routine behavior-management tactic, according to interviews with eight former staff members.

Counselors used force to break the spirits of youths with too much "street" attitude and to punish those who declined to conform to strict expectations of appropriate behavior, these former workers say. Some students were targeted for this treatment even before they got to Bowling Brook, which had to close this month in the aftermath of a student's death.

"The philosophy changed," said Chad Leister, who was a Bowling Brook counselor from 1998 to 2001 - and found a very different attitude among staff when he returned in 2006 to work as an administrator.

During his first stint, Leister said, he was involved in three restraints in three years. "It was a big deal if somebody got restrained," he said. "But when I came back, it was a natural thing, a daily occurrence."

In an interview last week, a top Bowling Brook administrator vehemently denied that school staff used restraint except when proper and necessary.

"The stuff they're telling you, it's not going on," said Brian Hayden, the school's program manager, though he declined to discuss specific allegations. "I would never work in a program like that."

But according to just-released internal records, inspectors for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services have been told for some time of the school's increasing reliance on physical restraint.

Department investigators who visited Bowling Brook in September 2005 asked to speak to eight students - and five reported that they had been restrained for infractions as minor as scowling, the state records say. One student said he was held to the ground for writing a letter home pleading to be discharged.

The school's nurse formally complained to the department last August about the staff's handling of several youths, including one who was so badly bruised while being restrained that she sent him to the emergency room.

These practices culminated in the death Jan. 23 of 17-year-old Isaiah Simmons, who passed out and died during a restraint by counselors that lasted three hours. The medical examiner has ruled his death a homicide, listing the cause as "sudden death by restraint." State and federal authorities are still investigating.

Experts say physical restraint can be dangerous and should be a rare event - done only to prevent someone from hurting himself or others. Its use as a punishment for minor infractions, as described in the state's September 2005 reports, is "unacceptable," says Donald W. DeVore, the state's new secretary of juvenile services.

"Physical restraints should only be used as an absolute last resort and only where the physical safety of a child or others is in jeopardy," DeVore said. "It should not be used to demonstrate who's in control ... An excessive number of restraints is generally a pretty good indicator of a program that is in distress."

Hayden said Bowling Brook should be judged on its track record over many years of helping troubled youths, not a single tragic incident. "The school truly has been grieving for Isaiah and his family, there's no doubt about that," he said. "But we also know that we've done a lot of good for a lot of kids."

To be sure, for those students who successfully adapted to Bowling Brook's culture of achievement, the experience could be life-changing. They could earn college credit in classrooms, accolades on athletic fields, even a trip to Annapolis to meet lawmakers and lobbyists.

Ronald Johnson, 17, says Bowling Brook transformed him from a truant teenager who dabbled in drug dealing on East Baltimore street corners to an honor-roll student with plans for college.

Without Bowling Brook, "I would probably still be getting incarcerated," he said last week. "I'm glad that I was sent there." He said he was never restrained in his 10 months at the school.

Some students had a very different experience.

Peer pressure

There were no bars or fences or locked doors at Bowling Brook, though the juvenile offenders the state sent there included carjackers, armed robbers and drug dealers. On the streets, their crimes gave them status. What counted at Bowling Brook were good manners, obedience to authority and doing well in school.

The idea was to use peer pressure to get newcomers to buy into the Bowling Brook culture. Students were expected to confront one another verbally about all infractions, such as slouching in class or leaving shoelaces untied. Staff could confront them as well, and could even resort to physical restraint - but only if a youth's behavior got "out of control," Hayden said.

Former workers interviewed by The Sun said it happened much more often than that.

Rich Sargo said he noticed disturbing changes about five months after being hired as a counselor in late 2003.

In staff meetings, he said, counselors sometimes singled out troublesome students for future restraints, and later antagonized them into exhibiting any gesture that could be interpreted as threatening - to justify a "physical intervention."

The goal, Sargo said, was to break a student's will by force.

Sometimes, he said, youths would be targeted for restraint before they even stepped foot on campus. He offered as an example an incoming Baltimore youth who was regarded as a ringleader of five students already at Bowling Brook.

"We decided we would antagonize this individual," Sargo said, "so we could break him in front of these guys, so they would know right away that this guy they idolized ... was being controlled, restrained by us. So they in turn would see that we controlled everything."

Once a student was targeted, counselors would try to goad him into conduct that would justify restraint, said Mike Pegues, a counselor during most of 2006.

"You just kind of bait a kid into saying things," Pegues said. "We would interpret the slightest thing, just if a kid moves ... a hard look, gritting your teeth, balling your fist, any of those types of things would immediately be interpreted as aggressive behavior and a kid would immediately be restrained."

Micah Mincey, a counselor in 2004, said such provoked restraints fit readily into the school's confrontation-based approach to managing student behavior. If a youth didn't publicly "take ownership" for misbehavior cited by other students, the confrontation could quickly escalate to physical intervention by staff.

Hayden, the program manager, said that would happen only "when a young man's behavior gets out of control. It's not about discipline, it's not about punishment, it's about making sure that things are safe."

However, Bowling Brook's written guidelines state a more liberal justification for restraint than imminent danger. If a student "pushes his way" out of a confrontation, "he must be physically restrained by staff," according to the school's discipline policy, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun.

Former staff members offered various reasons for why the use of restraint became more common. Some said a new manager encouraged a more aggressive approach. Several others said it was a byproduct of the school's rapidly expanding size.

They said that as the number of students grew - from about 70 youths in 2001 to 170 this year - the school was admitting youngsters who weren't suited for a program built around positive peer pressure. It wasn't that their offenses were any worse than those of the other kids; it was their attitude.

"It seemed to be they were trying to get their numbers up," Sargo said, "and they were taking in a lot more aggressive kids. Kids they knew right off the bat were going to be physical issues."

Bowling Brook officials denied loosening admissions standards. Former program director James Marak, who worked at the school from 2002 to early 2006, said Bowling Brook carefully vetted referrals from state agencies in Maryland and Pennsylvania to make sure it only admitted students who would fit in.

Former counselors Mincey and Pegues said they were never personally involved in a restraint, but Sargo readily admitted to participating in numerous restraints, despite never having received any formal training.

He bow teaches history at a private school in Baltimore County. Sargo said he stopped participating in restraints when he discovered that he was becoming more aggressive at home; eventually, he said, he was let go from Bowling Brook for not being a "team player."

'Nothing was done'

State inspectors who visited Bowling Brook left with evidence of the school's inappropriate use of physical restraint but did little about it.

"Youth reported that he was restrained because of an anger scowl," a monitor wrote after a routine inspection done Sept. 28, 2005. "Youth reported that he was told by staff to fix his face. Youth reported that he pulled away from staff and he was restrained ... for what seemed like 30 minutes."

Another student told the inspector that a counselor restrained him as punishment for writing a letter to his grandmother saying he wanted to leave the school. He claimed he was restrained another time "because staff did not like the tone of his voice," the monitor wrote.

Though a state inspector discussed restraint policy with Bowling Brook director Mike Sunday, no further action was taken.

"It appears nothing was done, and that is unacceptable," said DeVore, the new juvenile services secretary.

Bowling Brook's former compliance officer, Maile Barrett, said school officials tried to hand-pick the students the state inspectors could interview. State records show, for instance, that during a visit last December, the inspectors selected at random the names of 11 youths. Bowling Brook provided access to six of them, and said the others were not available.

"They would go in there with a list of kids they wanted to see," Barrett said, "but they weren't going to get to see any kid that had gotten restrained the night before."

As early as December 2004, inspectors concluded that Bowling Brook was failing to report all restraint incidents to the Department of Juvenile Services, as required. "The monitor advised Bowling Brook that ALL reportable incidents as listed by DJS must be reported," according to a memo written after a site visit that month.

For the most part, though, monitors gave Bowling Brook glowing evaluations.

"The physical plant is in excellent condition; no health or safety issues identified; no grievance issues raised in youth interviews," said a report dated last May 12.

Simmons' death has prompted juvenile service officials to take a closer look at how they monitor state-licensed facilities and is prompting regulatory changes.

DeVore said he will soon issue guidelines restricting the use of restraints at state-run juvenile facilities and at privately run programs licensed by the state.

Restraints will have to be videotaped and will be limited to 15 minutes, DeVore said. They could continue for another 15 minutes only if approved by the program's director or his designee. And a mental health professional or nurse would have to brought in to assess the youth.

In addition, staff working in such facilities will have to be trained in how to safely restrain a student, and how to judge when it's appropriate to do so.

"We want to move toward a system of zero restraints," DeVore said.

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