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Report: Progress continues at Lincoln Hills amid pandemic but safety, education concerns remain

Published: Jul. 10, 2020 at 3:27 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Top issues voiced by youth at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake amid the COVID-19 pandemic revolved around boredom, education, and food complaints, according to the latest court-ordered monitor report. The report—based on April data, remote interviews, and a visit to the site—found partial compliance with court orders in most key issues and an overall pattern of improvement; as many as half of staff, however, still report feeling unsafe at the school plagued with a history of violence—down from roughly 80% of staff saying they felt unsafe last fall.

The report comes as part of ongoing monitoring after a federal judge found infringements of the constitutional rights of youth detained at the facility, which is now scheduled for an unlikely closure in 2021. Overuse of pepper spray and extensive solitary confinements prompted the ACLU to bring a lawsuit against the facility in 2017, resulting in a 2018 settlement that required the facility to end the use of pepper spray within a year as well as prohibiting solitary confinement unless a youth posed a risk to others. The latest report found the facility in at least partial compliance with those and other measures, but also frequently noted a need for better documentation of incidents in order to achieve substantial compliance. Ron Hermes, the administrator of the Division of Juvenile Corrections, says a newly-implemented system is going to improve data tracking in the future, and believes it could be reflected in higher compliance ratings in monitor Teresa Abreu’s next report.

Staff earned high commendation in the report for implementing social distancing protocols for activities without increasing the time youth spent alone in their rooms during the pandemic. Room confinements, a major metric of the court’s order, were almost entirely attributed to youth requesting confinement themselves or opting out of group activities, the report found, with only 5% of 1,051 confinements in April related to behavior on the male side of the school. Abreu’s conclusions regarding that were twofold: Few room confinements due to behavior was a positive sign, but youth preferring to remain in their rooms was also an indication of the cultural climate at the facility. Particularly on the male side, youth frequently complained of being bored, saying they wanted more activities.

“Youth in general did not frequently complain to the Monitor about confinement, restraints, being unfairly treated by staff, or feeling unsafe,” Abreu noted.

There was a slight uptick of physical and mechanical restraints used on the boys’ side of the school, and it remained high above the national average for similar facilities—but overall, Abreu found the trend was still downward from the rate of restraints a year ago. In several cases, Abreu said restraints could have been avoided with the use of proper deescalation, and encouraged the use of staff trained to deescalate situations. An increase of physical restraints when staff transition away from the use of pepper spray is common, the report noted.

Zoom calls with family will become permanent at the facility, according to Hermes, after their implementation in the absence of physical visits was met with positive responses from youth. From March through earlier this week, Hermes reports that more than 800 Zoom calls have been arranged between youth and their families; the monitor noted that feedback from youth had been extremely positive.

“Seeing my little sister smile,” one youth wrote in a survey asking for feedback about Zoom calls.

“I’ve been locked up 19 months and haven’t seen my family since then because they live in Texas, but Zoom let me get a visit,” another wrote.

The monitor noted several education concerns at the facility, including a teacher vacancy rate of roughly a third of total teaching positions. Staff also expressed frustration with juggling students’ e-learning needs with other responsibilities during COVID-19 after the facility, like the rest of the state, transitioned to virtual learning.

“Even though education had to change due to the pandemic, there is an urgent need to address the teacher vacancy rate,” Abreu wrote.

“There’s a teacher shortage in many school districts; we are not immune to that,” Hermes noted in a phonecall with 7 Investigates. “We have a very challenging population, and not all teachers are interested in working in our environment at the facility.”

While physical restraints and other indications of an improving atmosphere showed positive trends, the overall population at the facility was ‘significantly reduced’ during the reporting time frame to its lowest in recent years, impacting the numbers the data is based on. Part of that reduction was because Governor Tony Evers halted intakes to the facility because of COVID-19, as well as efforts to get youth out of the facility more quickly, the report noted.

“The population reduction allowed more individualized attention, and there was more stability in the units,” Abreu wrote in the report. “This positive outcome is important and something that should be addressed and continued: i.e., that having fewer youth and keeping them together with consistent and individualized staffing can reduce incidents and benefit youth and staff alike.”

The report comes a week after three positive cases of COVID-19 were confirmed at the facility. As of Friday, Hermes said that he was unsure of their status and did not believe the staff members were back at work yet, but that no additional cases had been reported.

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