Typed on school letterhead, the message is brief: “I have been told that a hearing will be held this week to consider if I should stay at Glen Mills. I want you to know that if I can go home, I want to but, if I have to go somewhere else, I want to stay at Glen Mills.”
Glen Mills staffers encouraged Philadelphia students to sign these pretyped letters by falsely claiming their sentences would restart if they left Glen Mills for another program, at least nine boys told Leola Hardy, chief of the juvenile unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
“I do think it’s very concerning that they would even approach a child to sign something like that,” said Hardy. “They’re not attorneys. They don’t know what’s happening in court. They were trying to scare the kids."
Councilmember Helen Gym said she had also seen the letter and spoken about it with at least one agency that is investigating the school for court-ordered boys.
“I’ve become increasingly alarmed by behaviors that indicate Glen Mills is circling the wagons to protect its reputation, rather than take responsibility for these allegations of child abuse," Gym said.
The letters surfaced in the last week as Philadelphia boys began appearing in court for new placement hearings. Philadelphia initiated these hearings when it decided on Feb. 20 to remove its 51 boys from Glen Mills, in response to an Inquirer investigation documenting decades of child abuse and cover-ups at the Delaware County campus.
Multiple former students and staffers told the Inquirer that counselors kept boys from reporting abuse by saying they would have to go to a worse placement and do their time all over again.
The oldest U.S. reform school, Glen Mills now stands to lose more than 100 students as judges from across the country pull their boys. Allegheny County officials confirmed Friday they would remove 18 Pittsburgh-area youth from the school. Although a privately run nonprofit, Glen Mills receives taxpayer money, including a tuition of $52,000 per year for each boy from Philadelphia.
In a statement, Glen Mills attorney Guy Vilim denied that counselors encouraged boys to sign the letters. Rather, according to Vilim, “several students approached staff" saying they wished to stay at Glen Mills. To assist them, the school prepared the letter and sent an unidentified staff member from dorm to dorm, presenting it as an option to all students from Philadelphia.
“Nothing more was said and no pressure or coercion was applied to the students,” Vilim said.
The letter is addressed “Dear Judge” and bears the name and title of Randy Ireson, executive director of the school, in the top left corner. The school said Thursday that Ireson would take a leave of absence, citing health reasons. In addition, the president of Glen Mills’ Board of Managers resigned.
Vilim said that 28 Philadelphia students signed the letter. Of the approximately 15 boys whom the defenders had represented as of Friday, just one had signed the letter, Hardy said. Her office represents the majority of the Philadelphia boys at Glen Mills. Most have been able to go home, she said.
“I think it’s significant that most of the kids I talked to said they weren’t going to sign it, but all of them were asked to,” she said.
Philadelphia Department of Human Services Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said the letter and alleged threats surrounding it “underscore why a change in leadership and organizational culture at Glen Mills is necessary.” It is false that a juvenile’s sentence would restart because his placement changed, Figueroa said.
Earlier this year, DHS accepted a “corrective action plan” from Glen Mills after counselors attacked a Philadelphia boy, prompting the agency to investigate. The department identified problems that, in many cases, overlapped with the Inquirer’s reporting. Glen Mills told DHS it would make significant changes to campus operations.
The school’s leaders declined to be interviewed for the Inquirer story; but, after receiving a detailed memo of the investigation’s findings, Glen Mills said it would form a panel to conduct “an in-depth review into reports of misconduct in order to provide the highest level of accountability and transparency and identify areas of opportunity for change.”
But as Los Angeles, Houston, and other parts of the country pulled out of Glen Mills, the school’s leaders became increasingly defensive. In the last week, they quietly circulated a six-page memo to juvenile justice officials attempting to discredit the Inquirer story, and asserting that no wrongdoing had occurred.
Al Minker, a school administrator, sent an email Tuesday asking alumni to “come together and show support in fighting back on the recent articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer.”
In a Feb. 25 letter to the Pennsylvania attorney general, Glen Mills’ employees and Board of Managers said the Inquirer’s stories “irresponsibly and falsely defamed our staff and our reputation. We intend to defend ourselves."
The state Department of Human Services and the Delaware County district attorney are both investigating allegations of abuse and cover-ups at Glen Mills. The office of Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, said he was “deeply disturbed” and stands ready to take up the case if Delaware County refers it to him.
State Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta and Danilo Burgos, both from Philadelphia, wrote to Shapiro on Feb. 21 saying they were skeptical of Glen Mills’ review panel and requesting a full investigation.
Responding to the school’s subsequent letter to Shapiro, Kenyatta said: “The administration of Glen Mills has consistently attempted to avoid responsibility” and is “once again clearing themselves of wrongdoing.”
As for the pretyped letter the school gave Philadelphia boys, Gym declined to say which of the authorities investigating Glen Mills she discussed it with.
“I’ve never seen an institution that’s accused of these kinds of charges act so flagrantly in defiance of them, or act with such impunity. It’s outrageous,” Gym said. “This is why we need an independent investigation: Because clearly Glen Mills isn’t getting the message about how serious this is.”