Six suspended at Columbia school after shackling incident

Published 4:55 pm Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Six workers at the Columbia Training School have been suspended with pay as state welfare officials continue to investigate allegations that girls were shackled as punishment.

Department of Human Services director Don Taylor said Monday that the agency also prohibited smoking at Columbia last week after lawmakers were told guards gave teens cigarettes. A similar policy took effect at Oakley Training School a month earlier.

“Columbia is not making us safer,” Mississippi Youth Project’s co-director Sheila Bedi told The Clarion-Ledger editorial board Monday. “If anything, it’s just creating another generation of children who are more angry, more troubled.”

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Bedi wants more community-based services for juvenile offenders.

DHS and federal officials began looking at the daily operations of Columbia Training School after eight girls were allegedly placed in leg shackles for several weeks in May.

The investigation widened when a Mississippi House committee was told of accusations that male guards asked girls for sexual favors and gave teens cigarettes.

Bedi, who represents some of the girls involved, said she is in talks with DHS to provide counseling for the girls outside the training schools.

Taylor said the investigation could be completed within a week. He would not identify the employees involved.

House Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, is waiting for the final report before commenting.

Both Columbia and Oakley training schools house teens who commit crimes ranging from drug possession to assault. They typically stay six weeks to a few months, depending on the sentence.

Oakley houses 146 boys and has a $10 million budget. Columbia houses 33 girls and has a $5 million budget.

In May 2005, the state entered a four-year consent decree to end a Justice Department lawsuit over allegations of abuse at the training schools.

A federal monitor’s report released June 8 repeats concerns over staffing shortages and proper training of workers. The report states the hiring process must move faster to keep employees. It also recommends hiring a custodial service to care for the schools, rather than use guards and teachers to clean.

Taylor said the agency is addressing some of the concerns in the federal report.

“The positions are very low-paying positions, and we’ve worked hard to keep staff,” he said.

At Columbia, six of the 130 positions are vacant. At Oakley, 58 of the 288 posts are empty.

DHS received permission to hire employees immediately without wading through paperwork from the state Personnel Board, Taylor said.

One major step could be higher salaries that take effect Sunday, the beginning of the state’s fiscal year.

Pay currently ranges from $16,376 for a first-level security officer to $44,198 for a top-ranked juvenile correctional officer. The new pay plan bumps the beginning pay to $18,977.

While higher pay and more workers are good, Bedi said the system needs an overhaul.

“What we’re doing right now, we know it doesn’t work,” she told the newspaper.

Oakley has room for 400 students, so the girls at Columbia could be moved into a separate area, she said. The money saved from operations could fund community-based programs, she said.

Rehabilitation efforts need to involve parents and make children care about their community, said Bedi, who wants Mississippi leaders to look at successful programs in other states.