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Inside the 15-foot rusting wire walls surrounding Oak Hill, the city’s maximum-security juvenile hall in Laurel, Md., a dozen teenage boys are hanging out in the courtyard amid the squat sprawl of aging buildings, which exude a dreary, institutional vibe. One of the boys is using a weed-whacker in a willy-nilly fashion in the name of learning a vocational skill as part of a horticultural class at the school. The others are clustered around a wheelbarrow holding a resting lawn mower and a bunch of tools, apparently in no rush to get the job done and without much direction in their endeavor. About 35 other kids can be found inside the school attending classes in the four-room schoolhouse, which is clean but in need of repairs. The whereabouts of the 100 other inmates is tough to know at any given moment. Every day about 40 are in court, 16 in the girls’ unit, and the remainder may be in drug rehab, on suicide watch, at the doctor’s office, in lockdown, or in the intake center.

Each year 500 kids are siphoned off D.C. streets and into Oak Hill. The center is supposed to look after District kids while they await trial or disposition and hopefully steer them away from Lorton’s beckoning doors. Having failed miserably at this task over the last 10 years, the city finally hired a Massachusetts-based contractor called Richard M. Milburn High School (RMHS) in the belief that it could work a little private-sector magic on a public-sector nightmare, but it hasn’t turned out that way.

The mission would be a mighty steep one even in a system that worked—the average stay is three to four months, and kids of all different ages and far too many troubles are part of the mix. RHMS has experience educating transient, troubled kids, but the school—by all accounts the crux of rehab at Oak Hill—continues to tumble. Observers suggest that the handoff between the city’s youth services and RMHS was fumbled so badly that the contractor may not be able to recover.

The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and the Department of Human Services’ Youth Services Administration (YSA) each took a turn at Oak Hill, and both slinked away in defeat. In 1986, the courts ordered the city to overhaul its juvenile justice system. The decree, known as the Jerry M. order after one of the kids once detained at Oak Hill, indicated that the District was fundamentally failing to look after the safety, education, and welfare of the kids held there.

Since then, the city has proved itself unable to comply with the order, and critics have called for the closing of the 188-bed facility. The city has already shuttered its two other youth detention facilities, Cedar Knoll Youth Center and the D.C. Receiving Home for Children. Now Oak Hill is under withering fire, too, and the juvenile offenders are still a lost cause.

Last Friday, Oak Hill’s educational failings came before D.C. Superior Court Judge Richard A. Levie. The plaintiffs charged that the District has systematically and repeatedly violated the educational mandates of the Jerry M. order. Although the judge has yet to rule on the motion, legal observers suggest that the move is the functional equivalent of requesting a receivership. The contempt complaint is just the latest in a series of 20 such motions to come before the court since 1988. RHMS found itself on the wrong end of the latest complaint because it hasn’t been able to get its arms around the basics at Oak Hill.

“Promised books, materials, and computers have not materialized. Adequate and competent staff and teachers have not been hired. The lack of communication, cooperation, and coordination between RMHS, YSA, and DCPS has caused the entire special education program to fall apart,” say the plaintiffs. The list of continuing violations of the court order goes on and on, filling 16 pages of the brief.

In court, the District did not dispute that it was out of compliance with the consent decree but held that the contractor deserves more than six months to prove itself.

But Joyce Burrell, acting YSA director, remains optimistic. “In the past eight weeks [since the decree’s monitor filed its last report], a lot has improved,” she says. In that time, shipments of books, supplies, and 15 new computers have arrived, and a new intake and assessment facility has become fully operational. Burrell blames the control board and the chief financial officer for the extra layers of bureaucracy that caused delay and got RMHS off to a rough start. The city decided back in March 1996 to bring in a private educational contractor, but RMHS didn’t arrive on campus until early November because of contracting snags.

The lag between the departure of YSA’s teachers and the contractors’ arrival wreaked havoc on the school, by all accounts. As soon as the reduction in force (RIF) notices went out to the 30-odd YSA teachers last August, the education system “fell to pieces,” according to a March 18, 1997, report by the Jerry M. monitor. RIFed teachers used sick leave to look for new jobs or refused to work altogether, coming in late and leaving early—behavior typical of fired workers denied severance pay. The court ordered 14 certified DCPS teachers to Oak Hill to fill the gap between September to November, but problems continued.

In this transition process, records—including class schedules and student files—mysteriously disappeared. As a result, students were not referred to special-ed services during much of this time. “Diagnostic evaluations were not done, so placement of students in classes was based on little more than intuition; and students were allowed to wander the grounds almost at will,” according to the monitor’s report.

The chaotic changeover led qualified teachers to leave and forced RMHS to recruit all new staff. Among the new recruits, the RMHS principal and 12 teachers have quit because they didn’t realize the level of chaos they were in for. “Most of these kids require a lot of special attention even if they have not been identified as special-ed,” says Burrell.

The contractor admitted in court that, like the new teachers, it also was unprepared for Oak Hill. “We didn’t really understand our entire playing field or the scope of the service deliverables,” says R. Edgar Thacker, RMHS deputy superintendent. In particular, RMHS didn’t anticipate the level of intervention by the courts, the city, advocates, and many others. “Working in this setting is like being under a gigantic microscope with thousands of eyes peering through it,” Thacker says.

Oak Hill’s myriad failures under RMHS and the city violates not only Jerry M. but federal law. Because of learning disabilities and emotional and behavioral problems, a majority of Oak Hill kids could qualify as disabled. Under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, public school systems like DCPS must provide all disabled students a “free” and “appropriate” education or pay for adequate private schooling. “Many kids end up at Oak Hill because of their home situations or their life circumstances—not at their own fault,” says David Reiser, an attorney with the public defender service involved in the case. Oak Hill’s floundering school program hardly meets the standard of what the feds believe is appropriate.

Even without the federal mandates and the Jerry M. order, Oak Hill would be a complicated place to run. Kids shuttle through the facility so rapidly that they would cause administrative headaches at Exeter, let alone an overburdened District facility. And many kids don’t have any educational records to begin with because they never went to school regularly, according to a discharged YSA teacher. Even among those who have gone to school regularly, there are many who weren’t diagnosed with special needs and arrived years behind the curve with no remedial plans.

But Oak Hill generally takes a nasty problem and makes it worse, according to many people close to the situation. “For most kids, Oak Hill is improper treatment,” says Joseph Tulman, a professor at the Special Education Law Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). “There has never been the political will to do the right thing.”

Even before the consent decree went into effect, DCPS had handed off responsibility for the detention facility’s school to YSA. Cut off from the city’s main educational pipeline, YSA teachers had to make do with scant resources and little support from on high. And to cut financial corners, YSA teachers were rarely given permanent status or compensation comparable to that of DCPS teachers.

Burrell and RMHS officials insist that despite the ongoing problems, things are better at the school than they were a year ago under YSA’s watch. “It’s not a program that you’re going to easily measure. It’s going to take time to get people working together on the same wavelength,” says RMHS principal Earnest Johnson, who arrived on the job 16 days ago after 31 years with DCPS.

Just this week, two Oak Hill kids received news that they had passed the GED; about 10 to 15 Oak Hill grads pass it each year, Johnson says. Burrell adds that given the population, expectations have to be kept in check: “It is not the ultimate education program. But for children who haven’t been in school for two years, the fact that they’re in school every day is a major feat.”

The incremental progress is enough to allow RMHS more than six months to prove itself, the city contends. “Now is not the appropriate time to jump ship,” Burrell says. “I don’t care who comes in here, you’re going to go through six months of transition.” If progress continues at its current rate, Burrell predicts the city can be in compliance with the court educational orders by the end of the school year.

While many advocates think Oak Hill should just be put out of its misery like the city’s other juvenile facilities, the plaintiffs’ attorneys will settle for a new educational contractor and an educational monitor to work with the city on complying with the consent decree. In addition, attorneys want new fines levied against the city for every day it remains out of compliance beginning in October, according to court documents. Already the city has paid more than $2 million in fines for Oak Hill—much of which has just been funneled back into programs at the facility.

In place of Oak Hill, advocates would like to see a string of smaller facilities that target kids’ specific needs better. UDC’s Tulman estimates that 100 of the 160-some kids now at Oak Hill could be placed in community-based programs. Out of those 100 kids, he estimates that 80 percent have some form of disability that would qualify them for federal help. “The way the system works, many of these kids end up locked up for a year for no good reason,” Tulman says. “What they’ve done doesn’t justify a draconian remedy.”

But eliminating juvenile detention entirely is not a viable option. “The District will always require some place for these kids to be held. There will always be an Oak Hill-like facility,” Burrell says. Ideally, the city would like to build a new $10-million state-of-the-art juvenile training center and detention facility within city limits, but that’s pie in a very distant sky under the present circumstances.

Ironically enough, the District might get out from under Oak Hill altogether if Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) has his way. Davis, who hopes to rework President Clinton’s plan for D.C., wants to lump juvenile justice services in with corrections and turn all D.C. incarceration responsibilities over to feds. But the Davis plan estimates that the services could be provided for $13 million—less than one-third of YSA’s current $46-million budget. “We spend about $18 million of that on community-based services alone,” Burrell says.

Money isn’t the biggest problem, critics note, because Oak Hill also floundered back when the system was flush. The cost of the city’s failure is difficult to calculate: Instead of diverting kids at a time when they are teachable, the District sends a clear message that their futures aren’t worth looking after.

“The District is a municipality whose education system for everybody is not in great shape, so it shouldn’t come as a shock to anybody that schools in the delinquency system are a problem,” public defender Reiser says. “We’re squandering a priceless opportunity to give them a proper education while they’re in public custody.”CP