Vernon Summers, a new counselor at the Youth Study Center, was lying on the floor after a teen punched him in the head and another one shoved him to the ground.
As Summers struggled to get up, at least seven teens encircled his co-worker, Marvin O'Connor.
One of the teens pulled out a jail-made shank. "Come closer. I'm gonna stab you," the teen taunted, according to O'Connor.
As O'Connor backed up, he hurled his walkie-talkie, which struck 17-year-old Khalif Jacobs in the head, leaving a gash that required three stitches.
O'Connor was forced to leave his job after the state accused him of child abuse. Raheem Turner, the teen with the shank, was fined "points," which meant no chocolate bars, soda and other penal perks.
O'Connor said he threw the walkie-talkie in self-defense, but his superiors said his reaction was indefensible.
O'Connor, 29, was one of four counselors accused by state public-welfare officials of injuring unruly teens during three altercations at the Youth Study Center last November. In all three cases, the state cited "improper physical discipline," records show.
With adolescent violence on the rise in Philadelphia, officials who run the city's only juvenile lockdown are debating how to manage a new breed of teens - ones charged with murder, rape and aggravated assault.
Increasingly, the center's "youth-detention counselors," who serve as both mentor and guard, grapple with how to subdue out-of-control teens without anyone getting hurt.
The task is more art form than textbook. And sometimes things go wrong.
A history of violent attacks
Jamil Odom, of Southwest Philly, ended up at the Youth Study Center after getting thrown out of two other juvenile facilities outside the city. His case file says, "failure to thrive," a euphemism for an unmanageable, aggressive teen.
Jamil, then 13, was housed on a unit with other teens his age, three of whom were charged with murder. Jamil had a history of violent attacks. He was charged with aggravated assault in March 2006, according to a juvenile-court source who looked up his record.
On a November day last year, Jamil lost his cool.
Counselors wanted to lock him in his room before someone got hurt. Only he refused to go. He kicked, bit and swung at counselors, who called in supervisors.
They forced him facedown on his bed, arms behind his back. Joseph Pittman, a supervisor, applied handcuffs as Jamil continued to struggle. When they flipped him over, they saw blood on his face, Pittman said.
"I didn't know what happened," Pittman said. "I thought he bumped his head on a metal part of the bed."
A state Department of Public Welfare investigation concluded that Jamil's forehead had been gored by the handcuffs, leaving a laceration requiring nine stitches.
The state agency, which investigates allegations of child abuse at juvenile facilities across Pennsylvania, identified Pittman as the "perpetrator."
"That's probably the most dangerous way to handle a child - facedown with his arms behind him," said Estelle Richman, state secretary of public welfare. "There is no safe way to do a prone restraint."
The state's finding against Pittman means he can no longer work with kids, even though he worked at the center for 26 years with an otherwise unblemished record.
After the incident, Pittman said he continued to report to work, but did virtually nothing. He retired in February, mostly because he was battling liver cancer and had undergone a transplant. Jamil is now in a secure detention facility in Utah. His mother, Diemma Pugh, did not respond to three requests from the Daily News to discuss Jamil.
For Pittman, there is a bitter irony in being branded as a perpetrator after spending nearly three decades helping juvenile offenders. Pittman, 53, said he was made scapegoat in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation.
"It doesn't make any difference what caused the child's injury or what the child was doing at the time he got injured," Pittman said. "The only thing that matters is that the child got injured."
Pittman said counselors restrain teens only as a last resort. They always try to talk them down, to get them to follow directions without "putting your hands" on them, he said.
"But it doesn't always work that way," Pittman said. "It's not that simplistic."
Though the Youth Study Center houses some of the city's most violent teens, the facility is not run by a corrections agency. It is run by the city Department of Human Services, an overwhelmed social-service agency with an idealistic mantra: Our Children Are Our Future.
James E. Randolph, the DHS deputy commissioner in charge of Juvenile Justice Services, said the center's mission is to impact positively the lives of about 6,000 teens who pass through the facility each year.
"We don't have guns in here. We don't have Mace in here. We don't have batons in here," Randolph said. "These are young people. Difficult. Challenging. But they're still young, and we do this work because we feel there is still a chance."
The center is governed by state child-welfare rules, which set limits on restraining juveniles. Under the regulations, counselors are only permitted to shackle or handcuff teens - if they pose a danger to themselves or others - for up to four hours.
Now, state officials say they're working toward eliminating restraints in Pennsylvania's juvenile facilities. In June, a Philadelphia teen under DHS custody, 17-year-old Omega Leach, died at a Tennessee treatment center after being restrained by a counselor.
"When a child is put into a facility, it is not supposed to be a death sentence," Richman said.
(No teen has died since the center opened in 1952 on the Parkway near 20th Street, city officials said.)
Richman said counselors need to recognize cues from agitated teens before they erupt. They should be taken aside and calmed at the first sign of trouble, she said.
All counselors, a job that pays a starting salary of about $30,000 a year, are given "emergency safety intervention" training, which advocates putting teens in "time out" when they act up. Counselors should also encourage the teen to "share feelings," the training booklet says.
"There are practically no situations where a child acts out with no warnings whatsoever," Richman said.
But with so many teens and so few counselors, sometimes those warning signs are missed.
Injured - but when?
Alleyah Stafford, a 16-year-old with a lengthy rap sheet, sat in a center gathering room with a group of other teens. It was football season last November and a few Eagles players took time out to talk with them.
As the assembly ended, Alleyah hurled a chair at another teen. Counselors tried to escort her to her room.
She struggled with counselors and other teens jumped in, said center Executive Director Marq Temple.
Two counselors, Terrina Brown and Marquita Whitehead, in the middle of the scuffle, eventually got Alleyah to her room. Once inside, Alleyah started pounding and kicking on the walls and door, Temple said.
Under state regulations, counselors can place teens in their room with the door locked, but only for a maximum four hours.
The following day, Alleyah complained that her hand hurt. She said she fell down and injured her hand as counselors tried to bring her to her room, Temple said.
An X-ray revealed a fracture, but the exact cause remains unclear. The surveillance camera wasn't working and the incident was not caught on tape. Temple said there is a possibility she fractured her hand while raging inside her room, or perhaps before she arrived at the center.
Police brought Alleyah to the center on Nov. 2, 2006, on charges of theft and marijuana possession. She allegedly took $300 out of a woman's purse while inside the Sneaker Villa at the Gallery at Market East.
When the woman's uncle confronted Alleyah, she grabbed him and they fell to the floor. She then started "yelling rape," according to the police report.
Alleyah is no stranger to the center. Police have arrested her at least nine times, mostly for theft, since she was 12. She was arrested in March 2006 for aggravated assault by knife, police records show.
Alleyah, who is no longer in the center, did not respond to requests for an interview. On a warm afternoon earlier this month, Alleyah's mother came to the door of their Southwest Philly home looking as if awoken from a nap.
"I don't know all the details," Sidney Stafford said in flat disinterest before closing the door.
A state investigation fingered the two counselors in Alleyah's hand fracture. Brown and Whitehead were reassigned to jobs that don't require interaction with teens. They're appealing the state finding and did not respond to requests for an interview.
Last month, state welfare officials downgraded the center's operating license in response to the three child-abuse cases and a host of other infractions, including overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. The decision affords the state more oversight of the center.
In an Aug. 15 licensing report, the state said the center "failed to protect the health, safety and well-being of the children receiving care."
Former and current counselors bristle at the state's characterization of the juveniles as "children."
"The police aren't bringing kids in there for dipping a girl's ponytail in ink," said Vernon Summers, the counselor who got punched in the head. "These are juveniles with a hard-core street mentality, an incarcerated mentality, and the leadership is a bunch of social workers."
" . . . I'm absolutely surprised that somebody hasn't gotten killed."
1 youth, 13 arrests
In November 2006, Raheem Turner and Khalif Jacobs were housed in the same room inside the center's infirmary unit. Both were recovering from gunshot wounds.
Raheem, then 18, was the unit's alpha male, while Khalif was an impressionable 17-year-old looking to fit in, counselors said.
Raheem was first arrested at age 10 for having an unspecified weapon on school property. He quickly moved on to more serious crimes, including charges of auto theft, armed robbery, aggravated assault and attempted murder. In all, police arrested him at least 13 times, court records show.
Center staff described him in one word: "Adultified."
"We've got some physically hard to manage kids," Marq Temple said. "Certain names come up, and we're like, 'Oh, here we go again.' You know, like Raheem Turner."
Khalif wasn't in that league. Police brought him to the center on Nov. 4, 2006, on charges of carrying a gun without a license. He accidentally shot himself in the leg, according to his mom, Marlo Thomas.
"He's a very smart, articulate guy," she said. "It made me mad when he didn't finish school."
Together, Raheem and Khalif were a poisonous mix.
Just a day before the walkie-talkie incident, Raheem and Khalif left the infirmary without permission. When a counselor ordered them to return to the unit, they grabbed the counselor and attempted to assault him.
As punishment, Raheem and Khalif were "fined all points," according to a Nov. 18, 2006, incident report.
The point system is the center's carrot-and-stick approach to what staffers call "behavior modification." The concept is simple: Good behavior, earn points. Bad behavior, lose points. Teens trade on points for goodies like candy, upgraded toiletries and soda.
But Raheem and Khalif apparently didn't seem to care about acquiring a fancy bar of soap.
The next day, Summers said he immediately sensed hostility on the infirmary unit when he showed up for his 2-to-10-p.m. shift. About a dozen teens, including Khalif and Raheem, were mouthing off, ignoring directions and glaring at the three staffers on duty, Summers said.
"They basically were running the floor," Summers said. "They were extremely aggressive."
O'Connor said he felt it too. Three times, he went downstairs to ask managers for additional staff to help manage the teens. But help never came, O'Connor said.
And while taking the teens back from dinner at 6 p.m., the day's tensions erupted in violence as the group spilled out of the elevator.
"Boom! All of the sudden they bum-rushed us," Summers said.
Summers said a teen punched him in the head and Khalif shoved him to the ground. Then Raheem pulled out a sharp piece of metal, O'Connor said.
O'Connor flung his walkie-talkie, striking Khalif's head.
A group of female counselors rushed in to break up the melee.
"They grabbed the guys and pushed them back," Summers said. "I call them 'princess warriors.' They deserve all the credit."
The teens were placed in their room. Summers went to the hospital, where he was checked for a concussion. Later, he filed a criminal complaint against the two teens.
A day or so later, staffers searched Raheem and Khalif's room and found a "jail-made weapon" - two sharpened metal screws taken from a pair of crutches. They also found a "metal-like piece," wrapped in cloth, on the floor of unit's dayroom.
"The piece was sharp, with weapon intentions," the incident report states.
Summers, 54, a retired intelligence analyst with three decades of military experience, quit his counselor's job, which he described as "extremely dangerous."
"There is not enough control," he said. "You have to have control."
O'Connor, once praised by a supervisor in a performance review for his "calm demeanor" and ability to make teens "feel safe," is appealing the state's finding against him.
"These guys had jail-made knives trying to attack us, and yet they want to portray me as some kind of child abuser," said O'Connor, 29, who now works at a half-way house for adult offenders fighting drug addiction.
In July, Raheem was moved to a secure facility in Cresson, Pa., for "repeat offenders who have assaultive, destructive and disruptive behaviors," according to its Web page.
Khalif, now 18, was released from the center two days after the getting hit with the walkie-talkie. On Nov. 21, 2006, a Family Court judge gave him probation on the felony-gun charge.
Soon afterward, Khalif cut off his electronic-monitoring anklet and "disappeared," said his mom, Marlo Thomas.
A bench warrant was issued for his arrest and he is considered a fugitive, a juvenile court source said.
"He's on the run," Thomas said. "I've told him to turn himself in plenty of times." *