The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating alleged civil rights violations of residents at the Tryon Residential Center, a spokeswoman said Thursday.
The facility houses about 150 boys and girls ages 10 to 18 who have been found guilty of various crimes across the state.
It is run by the state Office of Children and Family Services and has about 360 employees.
Edward Borges, director of communications for the Office of Children and Family Services, said officials at the facility are fully cooperating with federal investigators.
“We started providing them with documents in March and they visited Tryon at the end of June and they do plan to come back,” Borges said.
DOJ spokeswoman Jamie Hias would not say what prompted the investigation, although she said investigations usually follow local media reports or complaints from families.
The investigation is being handled by the Special Litigation Section of the department’s Civil Rights Division, she said, and involves possible violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
The Special Litigation Section is charged with enforcing, among other things, federal civil rights statues concerning conditions of institutional confinement.
“We’re training our staff to recognize that the majority of children in our facility have mental health problems or conduct disorder problems and have learning disabilities, and we need to recognize that and work to help these children,” Borges said. “For some of our employees, that change in philosophy has been difficult.”
But one union representative said Thursday that it’s employees who are in danger at Tryon, not residents.
“Any violations of civil rights is against the staff, who aren’t even able to go to work in a safe work environment,” said Darcy Wells, the director of public relations at the Public Employees Federation.
“I’ve sat and listened to women who have taught there for years. They’re afraid to be in the classrooms.”
PEF represents 90 of the employees at Tryon, mostly teachers and counselors. Other employees there are represented by the Civil Service Employees Association.
PEF posted a story on its Web site that outlines what union members say is abuse of employees by residents.
The story claims that education supervisor Mark Gruder was hit four times by a female student in February after he attempted to write her up for wearing someone else’s sweatshirt and then throwing it at him.
The Web site includes a photo of Gruder with a black eye.
“[The children are] in more control than the staff, and it’s clearly a dangerous situation for everyone,” Wells said. “These are streetwise kids.”
Borges said Thursday that he was just learning about PEF’s claim of abuse in the Gruder incident and would look into it.
The facility, which sits on County Highway 107 just outside the town of Johnstown, has six separate buildings where children stay.
The gender-segregated buildings have varying levels of security based on the severity of the crimes committed by the residents inside, Borges said.
Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, recently sent a letter along with Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport, to Office of Children and Family Services Commissioner Gladys Carrion asking her to review practices at the facility in light of the union’s allegations.
In 2006, a 15-year-old Tryon resident, Darryl Thompson, died from a heart arrhythmia caused by stress after being restrained by staff, according to an investigation. No criminal charges were filed in the case.
The state Inspector General’s Office released a report in the wake of Thompson’s death that outlined nine recommendations at Tryon, including an increase in staff, improvement in communication and review of emergency procedures.
“This is not new,” Farley said Thursday. “We had a lot of complaints last year and we asked the commissioner to look into it, and supposedly they did, and apparently some of these complaints are still ongoing.
“It’s not an easy job, but the facility has on balance been a very successful facility,” he added. “Apparently at least there’s some unhappy employees.”