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According to extensive reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer, one of Delaware County’s most prestigious schools for juvenile delinquent boys, the Glen Mills Schools, is home to widespread abuse of students, along with repeated attempts to conceal the misconduct from state regulators and law enforcement authorities.
The Glen Mills Schools stands as the nation’s oldest existing reform school. It’s often referred to as “the Harvard of reform schools,” taking students from across the country according to court orders issued in California, Texas, New York and Ohio.
Alongside rigorous academic programs, Glen Mills boasts an outstanding athletics program. An elegant quad is faced by historic red brick buildings that resemble one of the Northeast’s elite prep schools. But there is a darker secret lurking at Glen Mills Schools – a story of widespread abuse and extreme violence.
“Serious violence is both an everyday occurrence and an open secret at Glen Mills, and has been for decades,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Through internal school documents, court records and interviews with over 40 students and staff members, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s investigative team discovered evidence of routine beatings, along with “top leaders [who] turn a blind eye [to the violence] and insulate themselves from reports while failing to properly vet or train the school’s counselors.”
“I’ve seen people thrown through doors, like it was a movie,” says James Johnson, a former student and counselor at Glen Mills. Johnson quit his post in 2015 after watching colleagues beat a boy “to the point that his eye was nearly out of the socket.” But Johnson, and others, say beatings of this severity are routine at the school.
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The Philadelphia Inquirer spoke to 21 current and former students and counselors who say counselors at the school punch, beat and break the bones of boys who violate the school’s rules. “One boy said he was beaten and choked for running away,” the Inquirer reports. Another says he suffered a broken jaw for making a joke about a counselor’s sister.
Alongside the alleged systemic abuse, counselors at Glen Mills have developed an elaborate ritual to keep families and students quiet. When victims attempt to report the abuse, the Inquirer reports, staff members at Glen Mills “use[…] the school’s prestige as a weapon,” telling parents that, if their children complain, they will be sent to state-run facilities with far worse conditions. Students are threatened with “longer sentences,” the Inquirer says, while those who have been beaten are hidden in their rooms until their bruises go away.
When pressed for comment by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Glen Mills Schools executive director Randy Ireson repeatedly declined to answer questions, acting through a spokesperson. However, Ireson has not remained entirely silent. On February 15, 2019, four days after receiving a summary of the Inquirer’s reporting on the subject, Glen Mills Schools announced the creation of a new task force to conduct “an in-depth review into reports of misconduct” and “identify areas of opportunity for change.” Glen Mills says the task force will be comprised of students, parents, staff members and child protection experts.
In a press statement, executive director Ireson wrote, “we have a responsibility to provide the highest quality services to at-risk youth who we serve. We have asked for and expect a frank and candid assessment.” Ireson began as a counselor at the school in 1979.
In addition to the creation of its task force, Glen Mills Schools has provided Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services with what is being called a “corrective action plan.” The program proposes “sweeping changes to everything from hiring practices and staff training to school culture and student grievance procedures,” the Inquirer writes.
But local officials aren’t convinced. After reading an early version of the Inquirer’s report on Glen Mills, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services announced that it would be pulling 51 of its boys out of the school, in a process expected to take several weeks.
Despite operating as a private nonprofit, Glen Mills receives taxpayer funding, including an annual tuition of $52,000 for each boy sent to the school from Philadelphia.
In the wake of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s reporting, prominent Philadelphia politicians have spoken out against the school. City Councilmember Helen Gym has called for an independent investigation of Glen Mills, “specifically around the evidence of potential sexual abuse, coverup, witness intimidation and what criminal and civil laws may have been broken.”