This Tuesday, the Juvenile Justice Committee of the Mississippi House of Representatives heard testimony from families and experts about abuse at Columbia Training School, where eight girls were allegedly shackled at the ankles, some of them for more than a week, because another student falsely claimed they planned to escape. One former student also reported that male staff members had solicited sexual favors from girls at the school.
These incidents are reminiscent of the outrageous abuse that brought the training schools under a federal consent decree in 2005. Before that decree, girls at Columbia were often hog-tied or shackled to poles. Girls who were difficult or suicidal were chained to a pole in the “Dark Room” and left naked, in total isolation sometimes lasting days, with only a drain in the floor for a bathroom. When the Department of Justice investigated in 2003, they found that every level of care for girls was deficient—from safety to education to medical care.
Now, after two years of reforms, it seems evident that little has changed.
The girls at Columbia are not violent criminals—we send violent criminals to jail, even if they are teenagers. Most girls are at Columbia for non-violent offenses, and even the violent offenses tend to be simple assault. Generally, we’re talking about girls who got into fist fights at school.
Many of the girls at Columbia suffer from mental illnesses that the school treats erratically, if at all. Many have suffered both physical and sexual abuse.
What does it do to a girl who has been abused to be chained up like an animal by her school?
This barbarity is stupendously expensive. In 2006, Columbia employed 127 staff to run a facility with an average population of 37 girls a month at an annual cost of $5 million a year. That’s $600 per student, or $219,000 per student per year, according to the committee. That figure does not include potential lawsuits from students or the cost of litigation with the federal government.
The solution is straightforward: Close Columbia and transfer the girls there to Oakley, which was built with a wing for girls. Turn Columbia into a drug rehabilitation center, which would qualify for federal funding. Use the $4 million the Legislature has approved for community-based alternatives to keep as many girls out of training school as possible. Research shows that keeping children in their community is both more effective and more economical.
Finally, it is time to remove both training schools from the Department of Human Services, which has failed dismally to reform the schools.
A “school” as broken as Columbia should be closed, for everyone’s sake.
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