Three months after the state revoked its licenses over abuse allegations, the Glen Mills Schools is pledging to change its programming, hiring practices, and even its philosophy, if allowed to reopen.

The new program at Glen Mills, which one year ago housed nearly 400 court-ordered boys, would be “trauma-informed” and “embrace best practices in the field and provide a high quality of service,” acting executive director Christopher Spriggs said in a letter addressed to “Friends of the Glen Mills Schools."

“The Glen Mills Schools programs, living units, staffing, and philosophy will be vastly different moving forward," Spriggs wrote. “After the layoff of 250 full-time staff, contractors, and part-time employees, the Glen Mills Schools has embarked on a restructuring effort that will include new hiring practices, a restructuring of its residential units, and a complete program overhaul."

But Glen Mills declined to provide any additional details on what these changes might look like. Jeff Jubelirer, a vice president at Philadelphia-based public-relations firm Bellevue, declined to make Spriggs or board president Carolyn Seagraves available for interviews.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which licenses and oversees Glen Mills and other residential programs for delinquent youth, said all 14 of Glen Mills’ operating licenses remain revoked. An emergency removal order is also in place, keeping any county or state from sending boys to Glen Mills.

Both state actions followed an Inquirer investigation published in February that documented decades of widespread abuse and cover-ups at the Delaware County campus for court-ordered boys. The Inquirer interviewed dozens of former students and counselors who said staff broke students’ bones and busted their heads open for infractions as minor as mouthing off.

Glen Mills employees then threatened boys with longer sentences or told them they’d be sent to worse programs if they told their parents, according to interviews and records. Staff monitored students’ phone calls, and hid boys with egregious injuries in their rooms.

A.W., who asked to be identified by his initials, was beaten by counselors at Glen Mills Schools.
Heather Khalifa / File Photograph
A.W., who asked to be identified by his initials, was beaten by counselors at Glen Mills Schools.

The state conducted its own review of the school, corroborating The Inquirer’s reporting.

Glen Mills has consistently and vigorously pushed back against The Inquirer’s report, saying — without citing any specifics — that it “disputes virtually all the allegations and conclusions” in the article. In its petition to appeal both the removal order and the license revocations, school leaders called the school a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” whose program “offered its students a path to a future filled with promise and success.”

The school’s promise of a “vastly different” Glen Mills marks a different tack, then, for the nation’s oldest reform school, founded in 1826 as the Philadelphia House of Refuge. But the pledge isn’t entirely new.

In a “plan of correction” dated Jan. 24, Glen Mills said it would implement staff training in “using individualized trauma informed approach to de-escalate student behavior." A trauma-informed model considers the difficult circumstances and experiences in students’ lives, including poverty and violence, and explores how these traumas affect behavior.

This plan was submitted to Philadelphia officials, who stopped sending students to Glen Mills last summer after Glen Mills fired two counselors for beating up a 17-year-old.

Trying to entice Philadelphia to resume sending youth, Glen Mills also pledged to change its hiring practices by better vetting job candidates, and to hire consultants to fix a “culture of intimidation” at the school.

But rather than sending more boys to Glen Mills, Philadelphia and other jurisdictions — after reading The Inquirer investigation — decided to pull their remaining students from the campus.

Whether Glen Mills’ promises will come to fruition remains to be seen. The state’s Bureau of Hearings and Appeals won’t consider its bid to reopen until late this year; in May, the school and the state agreed to a six-month stay on proceedings.

DHS officials said they were not aware of any school or program that had successfully fought its license revocation. Ali Fogarty, a spokesperson for the department, said DHS “has not received any documents regarding what Glen Mills might have been referring to” in terms of new services and programs.

Jubelirer, the Glen Mills spokesperson, said the school could potentially apply for a new license.

Glen Mills is currently under investigation by the state Office of the Inspector General, the Pennsylvania auditor general, and the Delaware County district attorney. Additionally, in response to the Inquirer investigation, Glen Mills in February launched a task force to “identify areas of opportunity for change."

In his letter, Spriggs said Glen Mills is cooperating with all inquiries, and leaders “are looking forward to reviewing their forthcoming recommendations.

"We are committed to the highest level of accountability and transparency,” said Spriggs, who has worked at Glen Mills since 1994 and was in charge of its compliance with state regulations when recent abuse allegations surfaced.

His predecessor, Randy Ireson, retired last month. Ireson had been on leave, citing his health, since the Inquirer report ran in February.

According to state records, Glen Mills previously used a “sociological model operating philosophy” predicated on boys changing their behavior “from antisocial to pro-social.”

“The norms are modeled, monitored, enforced and supported by all staff members,” typically by line staff in a counselor/teacher hybrid role.

The school is also facing a class-action lawsuit from former students alleging not just physical abuse, but also a subpar education.

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym said Glen Mills has not taken steps to provide students a real education or guarantee their safety.

“Glen Mills’ leadership has failed, time and again, to acknowledge their responsibility for the pain and trauma of the children who were abused in their care," said Gym, who led the call locally for a state-level investigation into Glen Mills.

“Simply shuffling leadership or rebranding a program without addressing the core issues that led to their closure," she said, "raises questions about their ability or interest in true change.”