- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

An escape from the District’s juvenile detention facility that involved the brutal beating of a corrections officer has caused labor leaders and city officials to confront issues threatening to derail the confirmation of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s pick to head the city’s troubled juvenile justice agency, union officials say.

A coalition of labor leaders last month told The Washington Times that they reached a unanimous vote of no confidence in Neil Stanley, interim director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS).

But in the wake of this week’s escape some of those same labor leaders say Mr. Stanley has demonstrated a willingness to address security concerns that the unions thought fell on deaf ears in the past.

Establishing a dialogue with the unions could help Mr. Stanley avoid a bruising confirmation battle, which could only benefit the already struggling Gray administration.

“Right now our approach is to step back, regroup and see if he can respond to our concerns,” said Tasha Williams, president of the Fraternal Order of Police unit that represents DYRS corrections officers.

Such willingness to listen to their concerns, union leaders say, is a recent development triggered by the severity of Sunday’s escape, in which authorities say 18-year-old Travon Curry and another DYRS youth beat veteran corrections officer Sylvester Young and took his car keys and security card. Curry remains at large, after having climbed over the fenced-in compound using a ladder and fleeing in Mr. Young’s car.

At the mayor’s weekly press briefing Wednesday, Mr. Stanley assured the public that security improvements occurring “in real time” will prevent another escape at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center. He offered few specifics, citing the ongoing investigation and the sensitivity of security protocols, except that he has doubled staff on the midnight shift.

Mr. Gray, who spoke to Mr. Young personally on Tuesday night, said he has many questions about the incident, such as why a ladder was left out and how the youth could hop the fence and make it past the guard post.

“We are working hard to locate this youth,” the mayor said.

A four-part series in The Washington Times last year explored the District’s ill-fated investment in New Beginnings - a Laurel facility that houses just 60 of the District’s more than 1,100 committed youth.

When Mr. Gray took office he said DYRS was in need of an “overhaul.” Yet at a press conference last month announcing Mr. Stanley’s appointment, the nominee expressed support for the policies of former DYRS Director Vincent N. Schiraldi, which some have criticized as too lenient and unrealistic given the complexities and dangers of treating the District’s underprivileged youth.

“That’s where the labor community went sour on him,” said Johnnie Walker, former president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 383, and a regional political action coordinator. “There was a lot of resentment and anger built up over these last several years. We were expecting a different direction.”

After The Times reported in March that representatives of unions, including AFGE, opposed Mr. Stanley, sources close to the matter say the interim director reached out to labor leaders to hear their concerns. A proposed meeting was postponed due to the escape Sunday night, labor sources say.

At the same time, Mr. Gray has expressed his interest to the Central Labor Council to revisit a framework for labor-management talks that had been abandoned by his predecessor, former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, those sources say.

Some leaders expressed their view of Mr. Stanley’s and Mr. Gray’s overtures as “hopeful.”

“Our biggest concern with Mr. Stanley remains a lack of qualifications and lack of experience,” Ms. Williams said. “But in light of this incident, he demonstrated an ability to take control, and after having no communication whatsoever, he has said he wants to begin talking with us.”

Mr. Walker said that until the Sunday night escape, and as recently as last week, Mr. Stanley was advocating for lower staff ratios on the midnight shift at a group home near New Beginnings.

“The safety and security issues at New Beginnings itself are nothing new,” Mr. Walker said. “We’ve been saying it since it was built.”

Still, union officials see an opportunity to open city leaders’ eyes to what DYRS employees have been saying for years.

“The mental health of this youth involved in this incident is an issue, and we’ve been saying there needs to be a stronger behavior health component,” Mr. Walker said. “I think some city leaders may be recognizing that now.”

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat and chairman of the Human Services Committee that has oversight of DYRS, has expressed similar concerns.

He told The Times on Wednesday he has not decided how to proceed with Mr. Stanley’s council confirmation hearing, scheduled for May 5.

“There are important questions of management and philosophy,” said Mr. Graham, who questioned whether Mr. Gray had conducted a bona fide national search for a full-time director. “Is Mr. Stanley qualified to lead this agency, and is there a proper balance between traditional detention and rehabilitation? I want to know his philosophy. Because if it’s to preserve the current balance then I’m not interested.”

Mr. Graham said he was in favor of rehabilitation but must be convinced it can work.

“We’ve had $2.5 million in repairs to that facility which tells me those youth are out of control,” he said. “We need to strike a better balance.”

Not all labor leaders with a stake in DYRS reforms were in a conciliatory mood this week. Kristopher Baumann, head of the FOP unit that represents Metropolitan Police officers, said the police union is leery of Mr. Gray’s appointment of Mr. Stanley.

“These are violent, dangerous criminals that this administration is trying to coddle - not children. In order for anyone to have a chance, they need to remove the violent and the super-violent away from society and the other juvenile offenders and focus the programs and resources on the juveniles that can be turned around,” he said.