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Glen Mills Schools, state officials sued by national legal center over abuse, failing to educate

Juvenile Law Center and its partners say youths were not only abused, but denied an education

Glen Mills Schools.
Glen Mills Schools.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

He was only at the Glen Mills Schools for one month this winter.

But that’s all it took for the 16-year-old from Luzerne County, Pa., to witness 20 fights, daily verbal abuse, and at least five assaults on students by staff, including one that woke him in the night that turned out to be a Glen Mills employee slamming a youth repeatedly against a wall.

His entire education consisted of a stack of worksheets and a lone instruction from staff: “You don’t have to do any of this.”

But the worst of it for Sean, as he’s called in court records, came one day while making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Staff failed to intervene as another youth punched him in the face three times, bending his orthodontic braces and breaking his jaw.

Sean was in excruciating pain. But it took four days for Glen Mills to get him to an off-site dentist. And while his jaw was wired shut, they required him to drink milk for every meal.

Sean, who was at Glen Mills from February to March, is one of four former students heading a new class-action lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday morning by Juvenile Law Center — a national heavyweight in children’s advocacy — along with Education Law Center PA and law firm Dechert LLP.

“Each of us have seen an array of travesties involving our kids in this country, and I’d say this ranks high among the worst we’ve seen,” said Marsha Levick, chief legal officer for Juvenile Law Center.

The 149-page complaint is the product of several months of work by nearly a dozen lawyers who conducted in-depth interviews with former students and their families, Levick said. She credited The Inquirer, which published an investigation exposing a culture of violence and cover-ups at the Delaware County in February, with giving boys the courage to participate in the suit.

The article "opened doors and seemed to allow individuals a bit more freedom to come forward than previously, which is a testament to the extraordinary intimidation at Glen Mills,” she said.

The lawsuit describes a relentless campaign to silence students from reporting abuse — an effort that escalated in the days and weeks after the Inquirer investigation ran, and continued until state officials ordered the emergency removal of all boys, then pulled Glen Mills’ license.

The complaint describes how children were forced to “smile and wave” at state inspectors, and to lie about their treatment at Glen Mills. But the complaint also accuses state leaders of failing to protect the boys placed at the reform school. As reported by The Inquirer, the state Department of Human Services (DHS) flagged Glen Mills repeatedly for incidents of staff violence over the last five years, only to accept reassurances of change from school officials.

DHS Secretary Teresa Miller, former Secretary Theodore Dallas, and Cathy Utz, deputy secretary for the Office of Children, Youth and Families, are all named as defendants alongside the Glen Mills Schools, its executive director, and staff, as well as a handful of specific counselors named as abusers by the plaintiffs.

The petition also targets the state Department of Education, Secretary Pedro Rivera, and the Chester County Intermediate Unit, a local education authority that contracted with Glen Mills for services, saying they failed to ensure that the reform school provided a proper education to the boys in its care.

A spokesperson for the state officials said they could not comment on pending litigation. In a statement, Glen Mills spokesperson Aimee Tysarczyk said the school’s attorneys were evaluating the lawsuit and would comment on it later. The school is appealing the state’s removal order and plans to appeal the license revocation as well, she said.

“We look forward to our appeal process with the state and encourage anyone who wants to read our side of the story to review those documents,” said Tysarczyk, who works for Brian Communications. (The public-relations firm is owned by Brian P. Tierney, who is a member of the board of The Inquirer’s parent company.)

Glen Mills’ leaders have consistently denied the abuse allegations. They boast of providing a “world-class” education, with hundreds of students earning their diplomas or high-school equivalencies, and dozens more receiving college scholarships.

The four boys and their family members told the lawyers that while at Glen Mills, they were denied any semblance of an education.

Instead, students were warehoused in classrooms with computers, where they received no instruction as they struggled to move through credit-recovery courses, the complaint says. When their computers broke, they sat idle for days at a time. When one boy’s parents asked about his broken laptop, staff suggested they donate a computer to Glen Mills.

Students described being punished for failing; or asking for help, only to have staff give them the answers and change their grades so they could pass. One student was put on a GED track even though he was 17 and enrolled in school, and thus could not take the GED under state law.

He thought he took the GED three times, but was “misled” by Glen Mills staff, who provided him a practice exam.

At least two of the plaintiffs are children with disabilities who were denied their federally mandated services. Glen Mills failed to write proper or timely Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as required by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), nor did it provide any special services for these children beyond one extra hour of reading each week.

“Most students were left stranded with no meaningful learning, no accumulation of academic credits applicable to a high school diploma and no opportunity to take a GED exam,” the complaint reads.

The lawsuit says “none of the staff are licensed teachers” and few, if any, held degrees in secondary education. Glen Mills boasts of its career and technical training programs; but most of these courses were not accredited or staffed with licensed teachers, “thereby depriving youth of a meaningful transferable certificate viable for employment.”

Maura McInerney, legal director for Education Law Center, said the situation was so bad that students leaving Glen Mills are now struggling to reintegrate at school because their credits don’t transfer and their learning has languished.

Yet when the Department of Education last visited Glen Mills — in 2015, according to McInerney — it found no problems. “They should have found problems," she said.

Even if Glen Mills’ education programming had been legitimate, the petition reads, “youth at Glen Mills were subject to pervasive intimidation, physical abuse, and traumatizing violence — all of which directly undermined their ability to learn.”

When they weren’t beating children themselves, the complaint says, Glen Mills staff members encouraged boys to beat up students on their behalf. They would let it be known they were “putting a cheeseburger” or other food item over a child’s head, meaning the student who beat up this child would receive a cheeseburger as a reward.

Staff avoided punching children in visible areas like the face, so that injuries would stay hidden during visits from family.

The boys were consistently threatened to keep quiet about the abuse they received at the hands of their counselors, and were punished when they didn’t. One plaintiff, a 15-year-old called Derrick, was told by staff that speaking out about his abuse and injuries was the reason he remained at Glen Mills. “His parents were also told that their inquiries about Derrick’s treatment were the sole cause for Derrick remaining at Glen Mills," according to the lawsuit.

Similarly, any counselors who wanted to report abuse were warned against it and faced retaliation. The complaint describes one staff member who witnessed other employees beating a child with a metal chair. Another staffer told him to “keep it gangster” and not report the assault. A supervisor told him to keep quiet, too. “When the staff person did report the abuse to ChildLine,” the complaint reads, “Glen Mills leadership effectively isolated him and, subsequently, terminated him.”

The threats only increased after The Inquirer’s investigation was published in February, sending a flurry of inspectors and other juvenile justice officials to the postcard-perfect campus on 800 acres of rolling hills.

“In response to the Inquirer article, Glen Mills staff and leadership informed youth at Glen Mills that they were not allowed to speak to outsiders about what goes on within Glen Mills,” according to the lawsuit. “Youth were reminded that if they discussed Glen Mills in a negative manner to those outside the institution, they would be reprimanded. Youth placed at Glen Mills understood this to mean they would be severely assaulted.”

Multiple state agencies, including the auditor general and the Office of the Inspector General, launched investigations into Glen Mills in response to the Inquirer report. Glen Mills instructed students “not to complain and told them they would face discipline for speaking out" to investigators, the complaint says.

Again, “Youth understood this to mean they would be severely assaulted.” Glen Mills also implemented new phone and visitation policies after the article published. A counselor told Derrick to “stop talking” and began listening in on his personal phone calls. Staff stayed in the room while his parents visited and “stared at Derrick during the visitations.”

“As Derrick thinks back to his Glen Mills experience, he is very upset about all the abuse he and his peers suffered,” the complaint says. “He wishes he could have done more to protect his Glen Mills peers from the abuses.”

Many children who returned from Glen Mills after the state’s emergency order remained terrified of speaking out about the abuse they experienced and witnessed there, according to the lawsuit. One youth said it was still not safe to talk, because Glen Mills staff members “know where we live.”

Juvenile Law Center was co-lead counsel on the lawsuit that obtained more than $20 million a decade ago for juveniles affected by the Luzerne County “Kids for Cash” scandal, wherein judges received millions in kickbacks for sending juveniles to for-profit facilities.

Levick said she expects the case to be joined with another suit filed last month against Glen Mills. The class is generally defined as former students who were juveniles and attended Glen Mills within the last two years. The lawsuit asks for compensation and punitive damages for the plaintiffs, legal fees, and other relief.

Yet Levick said they never heard from around one-third of former students in the “Kids for Cash” case who could have claimed financial damages. “This is the worst time of these kids’ lives," she said. “It’s often the case that when they’re able to walk away from it, they want to walk away from it.”

Sean, the boy with the broken jaw, couldn’t eat. And after the Inquirer investigation ran, Glen Mills staffers told him not to talk, either. If anyone asked him questions or investigated, they said, “don’t say anything and be quiet.”

His jaw is still wired, and occasionally it has to be tightened.

He is told this will help heal the fracture.