Wednesday, July 18, 2007
The top administrator of Columbia Training School directly ordered that girls be shackled at the ankles for as long as a month, in violation of state policy and federal law, and at least one male guard sexually abused a female student, with staff then ignoring complaints about the abuse.
The Southern Poverty Law Center made these and other allegations of abuse in a lawsuit against the state brought on behalf of abused girls filed July 11 in federal court. The lawsuit also details Columbia staff members' failure to take even rudimentary steps to prevent suicide attempts by troubled students.
"They gave me back a monster," wailed Audrea Sibley, whose unnamed daughter alleges a guard sexually assaulted her during her five-month stay at the facility in 2007. "She pushes me away when I go to hug her. What have they done to her?" She was present at a press conference announcing the lawsuit.
The JFP does not identify minors who have suffered physical or sexual abuse.
Five girls were allegedly shackled 12 hours a day over periods ranging from eight days to one month, according to the lawsuit, based solely on another student's accusation that they planned to escape. Girls were shackled immediately following their morning showers until they were locked into their cells at night. They were forced to wear the shackles to the school, the cafeteria, the chapel, and during recreational activities and family visitation.
The suit, which represents only one side of a legal dispute, alleges that staff sometimes failed to "double-lock" the shackles, so that the restraints tightened with every step the girls took. SPLC reports on the shackling included first-hand accounts of bruising and cuts to girls' feet and ankles. Columbia staff did nothing to address the girls' complaints of pain and injury, according to the suit. Although all staff at Columbia are mandatory reporters of child abuse, none reported the shackling.
Administrator L. Donald Armagost and Assistant Administrator Richard James made no attempt to substantiate the claim that the girls planned to escape, the lawsuit alleges, and state policy allows shackling only to prevent harm to girls, not to prevent escape.
The suit quotes from a memo Armagost wrote to staff member Vonsha Wash-Weary. "Do you think we need to put her on 'run risk' status?" Armagost wrote, referring to a student. "That would mean leg shackles and limited movement. Let me know what you think." Staff member Anola Barber subsequently attached the memo to an order placing that student in shackles.
"You had to waddle like a penguin everywhere. You had to exercise, eat and everything with shackles on. We were sometimes shackled together, so that wherever one had to go, the others had to go," said a 15-year-old, who alleges that guards (reportedly at least half are male) often made sexually explicit statements and advances. "They were old enough to know better than to say those kind of things."
Mississippi Department of Human Services spokeswoman Julia Bryan said that the state is still reviewing the lawsuit and could not comment further. DHS announced an investigation into the shackling on June 1 and expanded the inquiry into other abuses two weeks later, after Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, convened the House Juvenile Justice Committee to hear mothers and students testify about widespread abuse at the school.
Following that hearing, DHS added four staff members to the two the agency had already placed on paid leave and promised to conclude its investigation by the end of June. The agency has refused to name suspended staff members or specify their positions, and Bryan said Monday that she could not say when DHS might conclude its investigation.
In addition to shackling, one student suffered repeated sexual abuse from a security officer, identified in the lawsuit as Alexander. Plaintiffs do not yet know Alexander's first name. The lawsuit claims that Alexander stood outside the girl's cell door while she dressed after taking her evening shower. He then allegedly directed her to lift her shirt and expose her breasts, but she refused.
Alexander allegedly entered the girl's cell to embrace and kiss her, rubbing "her breasts and genitals with his hands over her clothes." Later that night, he entered her cell again and attempted to put his hand inside her underwear. When she struggled, Alexander left.
The girl in question was sexually abused by her biological father and suffers from mental illness. A study by state Departments of Public Safety and Public Health found that 66 percent to 85 percent of incarcerated juveniles in Mississippi suffer from at least one diagnosable mental disorder. Columbia staff members allegedly ignored the student's complaints regarding Alexander's abuse.
The SPLC also alleges serious neglect by Columbia toward suicidal girls. One girl known by staff to be suicidal attempted to slit her wrists on the edge of her concrete bunk, while another cut herself with glass and a razor blade she found outside her cell.
Another girl was allegedly forced to strip naked and put on a "suicide smock," an "indestructible garment that youth at risk of suicide are required to wear." She was then left alone in a cell for 14 hours. Mental health staff did not visit her, nor did Columbia staff monitor her, despite state policy that requires staff to visually observe suicidal girls at 10-minute intervals. During her isolation, this student carved the words "HATE ME" into her forearm.
Gov. Haley Barbour and DHS Director Don Taylor are defendants, along with Armagost, James, Alexander and DHS Division of Youth Services Director Kathy Pittman.
Taylor did not return calls to the JFP. He said in a recent press statement that he had suspended some Columbia administrators and promised a full investigation, while downplaying the girls' injuries and claiming that affected juveniles were receiving "medical attention." Mark Smith, MDHS deputy administrator for operations, could not comment on abuse at Columbia, but agreed that some administrators had been suspended.
SPLC attorney Sheila Bedi said the state may have suspended two administrators, but added that she believed other individuals, such as Alexander, are still working at the facility. Bedi said the state's slow response to complaints forced their hand in filing the lawsuit.
"We filed this lawsuit very reluctantly, after the state refused to settle any of our clients' claims. Apparently the state would prefer to defend the indefensible rather than put money into programs that will actually help young people put their lives back on track. The reason our taxpayers are paying $6 million a year to fund this outdated training school system is to help troubled girls get their lives back together, and that's not happening," Bedi said at the press conference.
this begs the question "Why hasn't it been shut down?" I don't think Legislators are cackling in glee at their faux prison camp there, somehow...
I'm so glad that action is being taken on this.
MS's Department of Health and Human can not continue to turn its head to troubled agencies such as Columbia and Oakley Training School. For the most part, State agencies do not provide funding to hire the brightest and best. Working conditions are poor and people who speak up and out are canned. This is true of many State agencies. I am hopeful that this legal intervention will serve as a consciousness for those who attend our young.
What happened to innocent until proven guilty? You are assuming that these people are guilty of these crimes without an evidence. Wake up Mississippi! Your representatives are making scape goats of some very fine people!!!! Keep in mind, this was an independant group who did this investigation. The state hasn't brought these claims against these people. What a backward state you have!!!
- guilty without a trial?
By the way....where were these so called loving parents when their children were getting in trouble??? Better yet, where were they on parents day at the training center? Maybe a handful of parents even visit their children there. Do you know how many of these children were actually abused at home? Many. Sounds like a few people with some dollar signs in their head. Wake up Mississippi! Many good things have happened at this school. Why were girls sent there with mental health problems? Because your judges couldn't care less and had no other place to send them. Get some details....don't just listen to the hype.
- guilty without a trial?