AP NEWS

Local youths removed from Pennsylvania facility after abuses reported

February 26, 2019

Harris County officials are bringing home two Houston-area teens held at a reform school in Pennsylvania after revelations of daily abuse and beatings at the idyllic suburban campus.

News of the dozens of claims of brutal treatment at the Glen Mills School, uncovered in an investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer, prompted the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department to take action. The department said it learned of the scandal when the Houston Chronicle called officials with questions.

“As soon as I was made aware of the allegations this morning, I directed our staff to make arrangements to have these two returned here immediately,” Henry Gonzales, the county’s juvenile probation executive director, said on Friday. “Although we have never had any allegations made by our kids against this facility, the contract had been reduced with the plan to not renew at the end of the current contract due to wanting to keep our youth closer to home.”

The Texas teens are scheduled come back on Tuesday.

Published last week, the Philadelphia paper’s probe institution plagued by abuse that the school’s leaders allegedly ignored, even as they continued to hire insufficiently trained staff to oversee the troubled teens. Ex-counselors recounted watching their peers kick students in the face or choke them until they screamed that they couldn’t breathe. Students told of beatings, chokings and broken bones.

“I’ve seen people thrown through doors, like it was a movie,” James Johnson, a former student and staff member, told the paper.

The school, in a statement released to the Chronicle through a spokeswoman, denied most of the paper’s findings.

“Glen Mills disputes virtually all the allegations and conclusions reported in the article, but we are willing to allow external reviewers to reach their own conclusions,” the statement said, noting the school’s recently formed panel to analyze operations and “identify areas where we can do even better.”

Harris County began sending juveniles to the facility a few years ago, though officials couldn’t immediately clarify when the contracts began. As part of a push to bring the teens closer to home and find ways to provide the same services locally, the county has sharply reduced the number sent there every year, Gonzales said. As of September, 10 Harris County youths were at Glen Mills, but by January that number dropped to just two.

Typically, those deemed suitable for Glen Mills were older teens who’d been sentenced to probation with a recommendation to complete reform school first, officials said. In some cases, children with gang involvement backgrounds were considered good candidates because the distance would ensure separation from other gang members in local facilities.

The array of vocational offerings — including culinary arts, golf course management, welding and photography, according to the Glen Mills website — also seemed like a benefit.

“I’m shocked. I found the place to be fantastic — I’ve toured the facility,” said Steve Halpert, juvenile division chief at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office.

This month, Philadelphia pulled all 51 of its boys from the program after the paper’s reporting. More than two decades ago, Chicago officials pulled its youths from the program after two alleged they’d been beaten.

The Inquirer traced allegations of abuse back to at least 1996, when a Florida boy said a counselor had slammed him on a pool table for failing to acknowledge the staffer when he walked in the room. The following year, the Chicago boys claimed they’d been beaten; three years later, state records show, a boy somehow ended up with a chipped tooth and bruises from staffers. In the state investigation that followed, eight boys told police they’d been hit and slammed into walls by more than a dozen staffers participating in the ongoing brutality.

The Inquirer’s reporting revealed a string of alleged brutality in recent years.

In June 2017, one teen made a crass joke about a staffer’s sister. In response, employees allegedly beat him so badly he ended up with a broken jaw.

That same year, a 17-year-old ran away from campus, he later told the Inquirer. When counselors found him in the woods, he claimed, the men took turns choking and punching him. Court records showed that two teens had to have their scalps stapled shut after restraints, and another reportedly needed stitches after he was pushed through a plate glass window.

State records — which the paper found “severely” undercounted the routine violence at the school —showed that in the last five years, at least 13 employees had been terminated and a few dozen others reprimanded as the result of more than a dozen assaults on teens.

keri.blakinger@chron.com