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Lawmaker Mulls Hearing on Juvenile Justice

State Sen. John Whitmire might call a hearing and seek leadership changes at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department after multiple reports of youths fighting, climbing onto rooftops and running away from staff in large numbers at youth correctional facilities.

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A key state lawmaker is threatening to call a state Senate hearing and seek leadership changes at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department after recent reports of youths fighting, climbing onto rooftops, running away from staff in large numbers and barricading themselves in at state juvenile correctional facilities.

Eight disturbances have been reported at four of the state’s five juvenile correctional facilities in the last three months, culminating in late September with a two-hour incident at the Giddings State School. About 40 youths began fighting, breaking windowpanes and climbing onto rooftops in a morning disturbance said to have been planned by two rival gangs.

Three youths required emergency room treatment, but no staff were hurt, according to a summary of recent disturbances. At least six students identified as major players in the incident have been removed from the campus.

Giddings – which opened its doors Sept.16 to former students for a reunion to extoll the positive impact staff and programs had on their lives — is a much different place than it was more than 20 years ago, state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, said Monday. A few days after the reunion, Whitmire said, youths “tore it up.”

On Sept. 20, a youth, who was referred to security after exposing himself to a juvenile correction officer, ran from the school gym, according to a report on the incident. Seventeen youths followed and began fighting, then scattered around the campus when staff responded. A few began breaking windowpanes with rocks, one was seen climbing on the roof of a building, and another took to a tree. The incident was contained in about 20 minutes, according to the summary. Four days later, 40 youths created the larger-scale disturbance the senator described as a ‘riot.’

"I’m going to probably have a hearing on juvenile justice within a couple of weeks, because I’m that concerned about the safety of the students that are not part of the rioters, the employees,” Whitmire said.

The Office of the Independent Ombudsman for the Department of Juvenile Justice stated in a preliminary report that a shortage in key staff at the campus contributed to the second Giddings disturbance.

“We have severely, emotionally disturbed students — all have been convicted of violent serious crimes and are felons, and we don’t even have a psychiatrist to work with them, so I’m very alarmed,” Whitmire said, adding that if conditions don’t improve, he will call for new leadership at the department.

Earlier in September, seven youths were involved in a fight at the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility in Mart, and juvenile correction officers used pepper spray. Also in September, at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, 14 youths barricaded themselves in the shower and toilet area and refused to leave so staff used pepper spray on some.

In August, up to 20 youths ran around the Evins center, jumped into the facility’s pond, climbed on a roof, and one youth tried to barricade himself in a restroom. That same month, 11 youths ran around a dorm, turned over furniture and climbed bathroom retaining walls at Giddings, and staff used pepper spray. At the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, nine youth were involved in a cafeteria fight, with pepper spray deployed and one youth injured.

In July, 10 to 12 youths ran around the Gainesville State School, climbed onto rooftops, broke about 15 windows and ripped metal covers from roofing systems. Pepper spray was deployed.

The department says an investigation is underway into the most recent Giddings disturbance, and the youths' actions aren’t going without punishment, said Jim Hurley, the department’s spokesman.

“It’s never acceptable,” he said, choosing not to respond directly to Whitmire’s criticism of the department. “We take these incidents very seriously.”

Youths can be transferred to more secure facilities, or face the possibility of transfer to adult prison, Hurley said.

Research shows that the best place for incarcerated youths to thrive is in locations like Giddings, a school-like environment offering treatment for underlying issues with staff who are committed, said Elizabeth Henneke, policy attorney with the Youth Justice Team, which is under the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

A change in agency leadership at this point would risk destabilizing the agency, which recently has seen three directors or interim directors, Henneke said. 

Former director Mike Griffiths resigned in March 2014, citing health-related issues. Interim executive director Linda Brooke held the job for the month of April 2014, before moving on to another job. Her successor, David Reilly, became interim executive director that May before being appointed last executive director last August.

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