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It's a Slow Transition to New Management at Cook County's Juvenile Jail

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The school located in Cook County's long-troubled Juvenile Temporary Detention Center is gradually re-opening. Administrators closed the school after a big fight broke out among residents in February. Getting the school back up and running is just one of the many issues facing the juvenile jail.

Getting the school re-opened for classes at the juvenile jail was an emotional issue for some.

Ambi: Inaudible yelling

About a dozen people confronted Chicago Public Schools President Rufus Williams at a board meeting about six weeks ago. The school falls under the Chicago Public Schools. Williams listened to their demands to bring back the school, but eventually, he'd had enough.
WILLIAMS: Ma'am, you've gotta stop. Ok. You've just gotta stop.

The school was shut down for a couple of reasons. The people who run the place say the fight was caused by residents from rival gangs, who were in close proximity in classrooms. Security tries to keep the gang kids separated, but they haven't had the staff to do that. These days, the halls of the school are pretty empty.

OLDAKER: We're back on the second floor in what we call the school area.

Ron Oldaker knows every nook and corner of this center. His official title is Director of Life.

OLDAKER: Used to be administrative assistant in charge of case worker services.

He takes me around the school on a recent weekday afternoon and it looks a lot like any other school. A couple kids are working on computers in one classroom. He also shows me the living units, where the residents spend most of their time. The one rule is I can't talk to any of the 400 or so kids who are being held at the center. The units are divided into 18 single rooms: one for each resident. And they don't really have the feel of a cell, it's more like a dorm. There are glass doors that look out into a large community room, which is where classes have been held since the school closed. Some kids are in and out of the juvenile jail in a couple weeks. But Oldaker says it's the long-term residents administrators are most worried about. They want them back into the classroom.

OLDAKER: We targeted kids that's going to be here a long time. The criminal court kids, they stay longer than the juveniles, so we got them back in class first.

Earl Dunlap says getting the school re-opened has been a slow process, but

DUNLAP: You can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Dunlap is the court-appointed administrator of the juvenile center. His position is temporary. Dunlap says there are more than 150 vacancies, which is partly why the school is still mostly closed. But he's close to hiring 20 more people. More staff is just the beginning of the changes Dunlap has in store.

DUNLAP: Well, you gotta separate out the policy stuff from the operational stuff.

Dunlap has a laundry list of priorities: the new hires and the school, but also a big change in management planned for the end of the month. Historically, the Cook County Board has run the center. But new state law turns the center over to the judicial branch under Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans. Dunlap will still have control of hiring, but his staff will be court employees instead of county. Neither Evans nor his staff would comment for this story.

But Ben Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU, says Dunlap is on the right track. Wolf's been following the goings on of the juvenile center for years, when allegations of staff abusing the youth came out. Not to mention all the reports of mismanagement and patronage.

WOLF: I think some of these things would have been messed up by the Cook County board if they had three kids over there. The problems weren't just the size and the complexity, the problems were the way the Cook County board for years ran this place.

Earl Dunlap says his goal is to stabilize the juvenile jail by the end of next year. Then he'll look to retire. He's quick to add he knows all his goals for the center won't be achieved by then.

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