Tensions rise at Silver Oak meeting

A meeting was held April 12 at Silver Oak Academy to discuss steps after an increased number of student walkoffs from the facility this year. The discussion escalated as Silver Oak administrators and residents of surrounding areas clashed over how to address the matter.

Meeting attendees gathered in the Workforce Development Building of the academy. Also present were Silver Oak Program Director Kevin McLeod, Scott Beal, Executive Director at Maryland Department of Juvenile Services (DJS), board members of Silver Oak, Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees, Lt. Rebecca Bosley, commander of the Maryland State Police Westminster Barrack and Carroll County Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1.

In the past year, there have been four occasions where groups of as many as three students at a time have walked off site, McLeod said, as opposed to two the year before and zero in the year prior to that.

“We understand that this past year has been not a comfortable year for us as well as not for you,” McLeod said as he addressed the group at the start of the meeting.

A work vehicle owned by a neighbor was ruined during one of the incidents, McLeod said.

“To have four this early in the year was quite a concern for us,” McLeod added.

Silver Oak Academy is a residential program that offers middle and high school classes and additional programming for at-risk and disadvantaged young men.

The capacity of the program is 96 residents and currently there are 53. The program is operated by Rite of Passage, Inc.. It is licensed by Maryland DJS for about 30 of those residents, with others coming from out of state.

The security level is comparable to a group home, Beal said, but has a larger amount of staff.

Thursday’s meeting was not a formal public hearing, and participants often did not identify themselves when commenting.

Next steps

McLeod began the meeting by addressing steps the campus would take to increase security.

Consistently, MSP has had a presence on campus and driving by the surrounding areas. Their presence has been stepped-up in the last couple of weeks in response to the walkoffs. The Carroll County Sheriff's Office also patrols nearby and respond in the event of a walkoff.

A call system, which is used to alert members of a call list if a student walks off campus unauthorized. A live person will man this number 24/7 McLeod said.

“That’s not just in case you have a situation,” he said, addressing community members in the audience, “but just in case you have a question or might have seen somebody that might be a part of Silver Oak Academy, you’ll always be able to give a call to that number directly.”

The academy will also hire additional staff to be present on the perimeter of the campus, a process which will be completed mid-May. These staff will respond immediately to a situation and police will be “not far behind,” he said.

An attendee raised the question about how police could effectively be present around the boundary of the program if it is bordered by woods and fields.

Prior to the meeting and then during, some community members expressed desire to install a fence or other barrier around the campus

At the meeting, McLeod said the program would not do that because it would change the demographic of the students placed in the program by DJS to those with higher-level offenses.

Several attendees, who identified themselves as nearby residents were not satisfied by the response. “We don’t want them in our backyard,” one man replied.

This issue was returned to several times during the meeting.

“That’s all we ask,” one woman said. “We are not putting down all the boys or the facility itself. We understand you’re trying to help them. But you also need to try to help us. So put a fence up.”

In addition to these external steps, the academy will also evaluate its admissions process in hopes of consistently admitting students who will work to participate fully in the program and will not be at risk for running.

“That’s not a perfect science. Everybody here knows that. You can never predict how young people are going to respond to something,” McLeod said. “I won’t stand up here and tell you that were going to be zero, perfect, but I will stand here and tell you exactly what I’m sharing with you. Those are the steps that we’re taking and those are the steps that are in place right now.”

A meeting attendee asked whether, in addition to the call system, a siren could be installed to alert when a student left the campus. “It may be a strong deterrent [for] the student as well to know that within a one-mile radius people are aware. Because not everybody is by their phone,” he said.

He added that the amount of families and children in the area is a big concern for residents because things may “escalate” if a Silver Oak student is running and trying to obtain a vehicle or speeding in a vehicle trying to get away.

Attendees of the meeting also raised strong issue with the fact that students are not locked into the facility at all times of day.

McLeod said they cannot be by order of the State Fire Marshal, which Bosley confirmed. Like the installation of a fence, this would be changed by changing the type of licensing that the facility has from DJS, which would change type of resident placed there.

In response, an individual asked why GPS ankle monitors could not be used.

“If a kid wants to get out, they take them right off,” McLeod said.

Response to incidents

One of the most fraught points raised was what a neighboring resident can do if a Silver Oak student enters his or her property while running from the facility.

“If they’re at my house and run through my car again, run through my buildings again or another B&E, what do I do to apprehend them while I’m on the phone with 9-1-1 for an hour and 15 minutes waiting for somebody to show up,” one man asked.

“Second amendment,” another man yelled from the audience.

Beal, who was speaking at the time, deferred the question to law enforcement.

DeWees replied, “You don’t have to flee in your own home. You don’t have to flee at all. And if they’re touching your property then yes, you can warn them to get off your property. Call us and let us get out here as quickly as we can.”

“He’s in my house. Can I apprehend him? Can I touch that kid?” the same man asked.

“If he’s in your house, absolutely. Second amendment, like somebody said,” DeWees said. Meeting attendees applauded.

“You may not see us there immediately,” DeWees added. “If there’s somebody there that you’ve got at gunpoint, absolutely we’re getting out here as fast as we possibly can. But a lot of times we’ve got information that they’ve gone in one direction or another by a citizen, so we’re going in that direction with the resources that we have.”

The academy, as well as the houses that surround it, are located near fields and far from commercial development. Searching for a student after a walkoff can mean searching for a student through fields and woods.

McLeod answered a question about what happens after a student leaves the site. In most cases, he is taken by state police to the barracks to await pickup by DJS or another organization if the student is from out of state.

“We’re not trying to figure out a way to destroy the community by just bringing kids back and letting them stay here and doing mayhem in our community. Absolutely not,” he said.

Meeting attendees asked for information about the demographic of the offenses that students who were juvenile offenders had committed and whether they were violent.

A DJS representative said the juvenile must be court ordered to come to the academy after multiple evaluations have determined that the situation is serious enough for them to be removed from the home.

Some of the offenses include robbery, grand theft auto, violation of probation, substance use and sale of substances and other. Juveniles convicted of arson, murder, attempted murder or sexual offense do not reside at Silver Oak, McLeod said.

DeWees said the Sheriff’s Office and MSP have met with Silver Oak to discuss plans for response. The program needs to make improvements internally to reduce the number of walkoffs.

More Questions

“Put yourself in our shoes,” requested a meeting attendee who said he lives a mile and a half from Silver Oak and has to be away from his wife an kids for 24 hour stretches because of work. “What can we do? What is the next step? Where do we go from here? How do I keep my family safe? That’s what I want to know.”

“Why are we taking baby steps to this,” another asked. “We have to go home saying, ‘Well hopefully this works. We’ll have to see.’ Why don’t we come up with a solution?”

One person asked what would happen if the number of walkoffs continued to increase at the frequency they had been and McLeod replied that the program would likely be looking at losing their license.

Discussion continued and the question of a fence was raised again.

“You’te just not gong to get the answer of a fence,” McLeod said, raising his voice. “I’ve said loud and clear its not going to happen… If you’re going to get behind be and support me, the we’re going to do the best we possibly can to clean the thing up….I appreciate your support, but if you can’t give me that support, we’re not going to sit here and argue back and forth. We’ve got kids here and we’re going to take care fo them to the best of our ability, and we’ve done some great damn things with them.”

“On your driver’s license, you get too many points, you lose you license. You’ve had too many damn kids out this year,’ one man yelled.

The discussion dissolved into argument back and forth.

Delmas Wood took a turn speaking. He is a member of the Silver Oak board, who said he was semi-retired following more than 20 years with DJS. He sought to work with Silver Oak because he was impressed by the program, he said.

“I do want you to have some understanding from the other side. Not that this in any way minimizes your concerns,” he said.

“The Department of Juvenile Services and the juvenile court, pretty much across the country has come to the understanding for a long time now that kids do not do well—they do not get better— in facilities with fences around them and a lot of locked doors.”

He invited the neighboring community to attend one of the academy’s high school graduations. “These kids are getting help. A lot fo them are doing really well. I know that that’s not what you’re feeling when you hear kids are loose in the community. But I do want you to understand why this place is here. This is not here just to hold kids here. The idea is for these kids who have come from some very difficult backgrounds to get the help that they need.”

“When you hear the resistance— and for some of you, it just doesn’t make any sense at all— why we don’t want a fence, that’s why we don’t want a juvenile prison,” he said.

A neighboring resident asked, “If one of these folks was a year or two older… they would be tried as an adult. If what they’re here for would have got them in a prison with a fence two years from now, what makes the crime any less?”

Woods replied, “In this country, not just the county or the state, in this country we believe that kids are different than adults. And we hold them to a different standard—that kids are still growing up, still maturing. … When we’re dealing with kids, we want to focus on trying to help them get better and get the kind of development that they should have gotten in their own home and their own community.”

McLeod ended the meeting after approximately an hour and 10 minutes. Some stayed and continued further discussions among themselves.

crighter@baltsun.com

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