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Oakley improvements cited since abuse lawsuit filed

[7/29/04]RAYMOND Teachers and staff at Mississippi’s home for male juvenile delinquents say the conditions have dramatically improved since the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against the state alleging abuse at Mississippi’s two training schools.

Several faculty and staff members met with members of the House of Representatives Juvenile Justice Committee Wednesday afternoon.

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, chairs the committee and takes the committee on annual trips to Mississippi’s two training schools, Oakley, in Hinds County near Raymond, and Columbia in Marion County, which was toured Tuesday.

Among those confined are 26 area youths 15 from Warren County, eight from Hinds, two from Claiborne and one from Sharkey.

Staff members did not talk about the case filed by federal officials last year, 18 months after U.S. Rep Bennie Thompson, D-Miss, asked for an investigation. They were also reluctant to talk about previous visits.

Instead, teachers uniformly complemented the new administration Larry Wallace as director of the training school and Jerry Sims as the principal of the school. Both assumed their duties this year.

“We’ve got the best administration we’ve ever had,” said GED teacher Donald Baggett, who has taught at the school for 21 years. “We’re moving in the right direction.”

About 95 percent of Baggett’s students have passed the GED since 2002, he said. The figures before that year were also good, he said, but he didn’t calculate them.

Flaggs was critical of the school at a lunch with committee members and school administrators.

“What I’m hearing is too good to be true with a pending lawsuit on our head,” Flaggs said.

He pointed to statistics saying that 86 percent of Oakley’s students read below a third-grade level.

Flaggs plans to organize a group of 15 House members and write a plan to reform Mississippi’s juvenile justice system. He said he will present it to the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House by Oct. 1.

Flaggs expects the report to recommend that Mississippi adopt a juvenile corrections system that uses small, regional facilities and nonresidential treatment centers similar to Missouri’s system, a national model. “It’s the Cadillac,” Flaggs said.

Missouri spends $23 per day per juvenile while Mississippi spends more than $100, Flaggs said.

Flaggs wants Oakley and Columbia taken away from the Department of Human Services and an independent board created to oversee them. He also wants a cap on the number of students at the facilities. Oakley has 167 students, and Columbia has 103.

Department of Human Services Executive Director Donald Taylor said drastic changes may not be the answer. Taylor pointed out that the same Justice Department suing the state today was lauding Oakley in 1994 when Taylor directed Youth Services for DHS for having the lowest rate of returning youths in the nation.

The school was also praised for its innovative paramilitary-style rehabilitation method the same that it uses today.

“All I know is it works,” Taylor said.

He suggested that the program lost direction during the past several years. “It was never meant to be punitive,” Taylor said, referring to the abuses cited in the federal investigation.

Ironwood, the infamous maximum security unit, moved to a new building in February and is now called Unit 4. Nine students are housed there, down from 19 when the Justice Department lawyers visited.

Richard Thomas, who has taught the students being held in the maximum security unit for 21 years, said the recent addition of another teacher in the unit helps. “At Ironwood, we didn’t have two teachers,” he said.

Thomas also said students in the maximum security unit were not the hooligans some would think.

“I don’t find them much different from public school students,” said Thomas, who taught and coached in public schools before coming to Oakley.

When it was filed, then Attorney General Mike Moore said he was surprised by the federal suit. He said he thought his office and federal attorneys were having success in negotiating changes.

Thompson has held community meetings on the schools. During them, uniform criticism of conditions and operations have continued.