This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Not only were students at Glen Mills School beaten and regularly abused, but their educational needs also were systematically neglected, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by two leading children’s advocacy law firms.
Students either received online “credit recovery” instruction in groups of 30 to 60 or were shunted into GED programs, the complaint says, in which they were given outdated workbooks to complete and sometimes never had the opportunity to even take the tests. All the residents were supervised by Glen Mills staff members who were not certified teachers, according to the lawsuit brought by the Juvenile Law Center and the Education Law Center, with help from the private firm Dechert LLP.
The suit is a class action, with four named plaintiffs whose stories are related in horrific detail. It names as defendants not just the administrators of the now-shuttered reform school for boys, but also the state agencies that are accused of allowing the abuse and educational malpractice to continue, in violation of state and federal law and the students’ constitutional rights.
“We want to make clear in this lawsuit that there are multiple entities responsible for what’s happened here,” said Marsha Levick, the chief legal officer and founder of the Juvenile Law Center.
The lawsuit is seeking at least $10 million in damages for medical neglect and abuse, as well as a compensatory education fund to be used by students who were deprived of an adequate education while at Glen Mills.
“Who we want to be held accountable is not just the Glen Mills leadership and staff, but the named leadership at the state Department of Human Services [DHS] and the Pennsylvania Department of Education [PDE],” she said. “Turns out sometimes it takes a number of entities to allow something to go terribly awry.”
Levick said that despite getting incident reports month after month describing similar incidents and delineating “a culture of violence” against residents of the school, DHS would respond bureaucratically with “boilerplate” language.
“The cycle continued, and DHS never stepped in,” she said.
In March, DHS finally ordered that all residents be moved out, and on April 8, it revoked all of Glen Mills’ licenses, taking those actions only after a sweeping investigation that described conditions there was published in February in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Among the named defendants are DHS Secretary Teresa Miller and Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, as well as the Chester County Intermediate Unit. Although Glen Mills is in Delaware County, the Chester County Intermediate Unit had the contract with Glen Mills as the recognized “local education agency” (LEA) charged with overseeing the educational program and enforcing standards and procedures for students, including those with disabilities.
“Before now, we didn’t know as much about what was going on educationally for these children,” said Maura McInerney, legal director for the Education Law Center (ELC). “Based on the fact that they are now out of the institution and sharing with others the quality of education they received, we’re learning more about the horrible deprivation of the rights of these children.”
One of the named plaintiffs, Thomas, was 15 when he was sent to Glen Mills for delinquency in May 2018. The Philadelphia teen was put in the computer-based credit recovery program, but told staff that he could not learn that way. However, he was given no other options.
His mother requested that he be evaluated and given an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is a requirement under the law for students with special needs, but such an evaluation was never done. Plus, he was given 11th-grade work even though he was in the 9th grade. Although his mother thought his special education needs were being met and he was getting passing grades, neither was true. He earned few academic credits while there.
Another student, Sean, was placed in Glen Mills for a month, between February and March, and had no access to a computer or any educational programming during that period, the complaint says.
If students floundered in the credit recovery program, they were “flipped” into studying for a GED, even though students under 18 are not supposed to be in a GED program, except in very narrow circumstances.
“Also, under this, all they got was a course book,” McInerney said. “Once they were done with the course book, even if they failed the GED 50 times, that’s it, they got no more education.”
Under federal law, students with special needs are entitled to a “free and appropriate public education” as described in an IEP tailored to his or her needs after meetings between the parents and educators. This did not happen at Glen Mills, McInerney said. And the agencies charged with monitoring programming and student progress, the state and the Chester IU, “didn’t do anything,” said McInerney.
In addition to the educational deprivation, Thomas and the other named plaintiffs both witnessed and suffered abuse from staff members, one of whom gave him a black eye when Thomas bumped into him, according to the lawsuit. That incident resulted in Thomas being moved to another residence hall and losing his status in the institution’s disciplinary protocol and status hierarchy, called “Battling Bulls,” which was based on peer pressure and group confrontation, the complaint says. At one point, Thomas was given the task of confronting other students who were too loud.
His mother, identified as Michelle, “suspected that Thomas was in danger,” the complaint says. Despite frequent attempts, Michelle “found that it was extremely difficult to speak with staff members. When she spoke with Thomas, she could tell that there was someone listening to their call. After one visit at the end of August, she received a note written by Thomas requesting her to ‘call up here every day’ and to ‘start coming up there once a week.’ She was worried that Thomas was not safe.”
Although Glen Mills prided itself on its reputation, “lurking inside its storied halls was a culture of malicious and sadistic abuse carried out by Glen Mills ‘counselors’ and other staff who assaulted youth through punching, shoving, choking, beating with objects, and otherwise harming youth,” the lawsuit states.
Glen Mills counselors authorized and encouraged youth to beat up other youth and failed to intervene when youth beat up other youth — subjecting Glen Mills residents to a constant fear of abuse, the complaint says.
Glen Mills leaders, through their policies and practices, created this culture of abuse, the lawsuit says, then ignored the medical and educational needs of youth. The school’s leadership and staff took all measures to suppress the stories of violence and neglect and protect the school’s reputation, intimidating youth and their families into silence, according to the lawsuit.
Glen Mills had a Career and Technical Education program, in which the students could learn trades, that had a good reputation among judges and others who sent boys there. However, that program lacked the proper accreditation that could lead to industry certifications and jobs for those who completed it.
“We need to learn more, but as far as we know, they are not registered as a CTE program with PDE,” McInerney said.
The complaint says that those in the juvenile justice system are among the most vulnerable youth, citing evidence that two-thirds of them “disengage from school entirely” after exiting the system. Yet, the suit says, “these youth were deprived of an appropriate education … youth who were already educationally at-risk languished without direct instruction from qualified teachers, access to a full curriculum, or any of the supports and services they needed and to which they were legally entitled.”
This was in addition to abuse described as “barbaric” that, according to the complaint, “continued unchecked due to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Service’s callous disregard for the safety and well-being of the youth in its care.”
UPDATE: Spokespeople for DHS and PDE said although the agencies would review the complaint, they “cannot comment on pending litigation.”
The Notebook’s coverage of juvenile justice and the foster care system is made possible by a grant from the Samuel S. Fels Fund.