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Pennsylvania closes the Glen Mills Schools amid child-abuse investigation

The Department of Human Services said it is revoking the school’s license

The Glen Mills Schools in Glen Mills, Pa., is shown Thursday, March 7, 2019.
The Glen Mills Schools in Glen Mills, Pa., is shown Thursday, March 7, 2019.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Pennsylvania is closing the Glen Mills Schools, the oldest existing U.S. reform school, amid an investigation into child abuse and cover-ups at the Delaware County campus.

The state Department of Human Services (DHS) announced Monday that it was revoking Glen Mills’ license, having found evidence that its employees beat juveniles sent to the all-boys school and attempted to coerce them into silence.

In a letter to Glen Mills assistant executive director Christopher Spriggs, DHS Deputy Secretary Cathy Utz cited “gross incompetence, negligence, and misconduct in operating the facilities,” and “mistreatment and abuse of children in care."

“Institutions charged with caring for children have a responsibility to keep them safe. The Glen Mills Schools failed in this duty,” DHS Secretary Teresa Miller said in a statement. “We now know that children living at Glen Mills were subjected to abuse and intimidation. My department is taking this action so no more children will be subjected to the culture of abuse, coercion, and silence that ran deep at the school, and so staff responsible may be held accountable.”

The state could have taken a smaller step, such as offering Glen Mills a provisional license or requesting a corrective action plan, as it has in the past. But Utz told The Inquirer that revocation was necessary because of the systemic nature of the abuse, and because of Glen Mills’ failure to fix problems DHS had cited in the past.

“Children who are entrusted in Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system have a right to be safe in their placements,” Utz said.

In a statement, Glen Mills leaders said they planned to appeal DHS’s decision, which they said was based on “no credible evidence.”

“We are stunned that PA DHS is taking this action based on media reports as opposed to looking at the results of their own inspections,” they said in the statement.

The Inquirer published an investigation in February documenting decades of abuse at Glen Mills, which was founded in 1826 as the Philadelphia House of Refuge.

The newspaper revealed that counselors violently attacked boys for minor misconduct such as talking back, not listening, or making crude jokes. Staff told the youths that if they reported the abuse, they would be sent to worse placements where they would serve longer sentences. Staff monitored their phone calls and encouraged them to lie about their injuries.

DHS conducted its own investigation, interviewing former students and staff members. Their probe corroborated The Inquirer’s reporting and prompted DHS to order the emergency removal of all boys remaining on Glen Mills’ campus.

By Friday, no boys were left at Glen Mills, which is appealing the removal order as it lays off staff.

Glen Mills’ buildings are separately licensed, so the school technically holds 14 licenses from Pennsylvania. All are being revoked.

The school’s leaders vigorously denied that counselors abused students on campus. “No credible evidence supports the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ actions and their recent inspections confirm this," they said in the statement. “The issues PA DHS inspectors discovered were trivial, and they found no signs of long-standing physical abuse, per their own documentation.”

A cursory search of the state’s inspection reports suggests otherwise. In the last five years, Glen Mills counselors were cited for shoving a child’s head into a cabinet, striking others in the face in front of their peers, breaking open a child’s head, sending a student’s elbow through a glass window, choking a student, pushing a boy through a chair, and punching a child in the ribs, among other incidents.

Another teenager was removed from Glen Mills and sent to a state-run facility in June 2017, after counselors stepped on the boy’s face and broke his jaw so severely that it had to be wired shut.

And last summer, two counselors were caught abusing a Philadelphia teenager on surveillance video. One slammed him to the floor and choked him, then the other punched the 17-year-old in the face. Both were later arrested.

After The Inquirer investigation was published, Philadelphia and other jurisdictions around the country pulled their boys from Glen Mills. Utz said DHS interviewed these former students and found that they were more willing to discuss the violence at Glen Mills — “now that they were in a safe place” — than when inspectors interviewed them on campus.

Leola Hardy, chief of the juvenile division for the Philadelphia Defenders Association, said it was “completely untrue” that public defenders had never noticed abuse at Glen Mills, as the school claimed in its appeal to the removal order.

“Defender attorneys have vigilantly documented concerning incidents that occurred at Glen Mills and reported them to Glen Mills itself and other appropriate stakeholders,” Hardy said.

Glen Mills has 10 days to file its appeal. DHS officials said they were not aware of a facility that had successfully appealed a license revocation, a rare and serious action.

If Glen Mills loses its appeal, it can reapply for a license. “It would be too soon to speculate on where Glen Mills goes from here, but we all agree that if they were to request an an application, there would be a definite need for changes," Utz said.

Aimee Tysarczyk, a spokesperson for Glen Mills, said the golf course and some community-based programs and events were not affected by the license revocations and would remain operating.

Local and state leaders applauded DHS’s decision.

“Revoking the license at Glen Mills Schools was the only acceptable action in response to the horrific and inexcusable mistreatment of children at the school,” Gov. Tom Wolf said.

The Pennsylvania auditor general launched an investigation into Glen Mills that will continue even with the loss of license, his office said. The Office of the State Inspector General is also probing violence at Glen Mills, which is facing a class-action lawsuit from former students who say they were abused at the school.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Phila.) and Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym, who called for state-level investigations into abuse at Glen Mills, said they were pleased with DHS’s action Monday.

“No closure, no legal recourse, can ever undo the trauma or pain suffered by too many generations of youth at Glen Mills,” Gym said. “But today, we have taken one step toward dismantling an archaic and abusive system of mass institutionalization of young people.”

A 19-year-old from Los Angeles who says he was held down and beaten by several counselors before he left Glen Mills in 2018 said he was happy Monday that other boys would be spared what he went through.

The teenager — whom The Inquirer agreed to not name because he is a child abuse victim — said he was grateful to get his GED at Glen Mills, where he played soccer and bonded with some staff members.

But his overwhelming memory is “seeing kids get their a— beat just because ... and you can’t do anything about it because if you do, they’ll call for more staff and you’ll get your a— beat.”

“It wasn’t all bad,” he said, “but some of it ruined all of it.”