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Part 3: Escalating Tensions

By Dina Samfield


SHIRLEY — According to Patricia Wood, who grew up at the sprawling 900-acre Shirley Industrial School for Boys from 1950 to 1972, she largely felt safe there.

Wood’s parents worked at the school, and even a neighbor of the school she ran into recently told her that she had “no fear of the boys.”

Still, Wood admitted at the opening of the Shirley Historical Society’s exhibit on juvenile detention, throughout the reform school’s history, there were a number of violent attacks. In the 1930s, she reported, a trusted houseboy working at Superintendent Campbell’s house came across an obsolete unloaded .22 caliber gun and clubbed Mrs. Campbell with it before escaping into the woods.

In the 1960s, a boy stabbed truck driver Norman Jackson with a screwdriver at the dump.

In 1971, a trio of boys raided the school and allegedly brandished a .22-caliber Luger pistol at night watchman John Huhtamaki before freeing a juvenile from the school.

Despite such rare incidents, said Wood, she feared the soldiers at Fort Devens more than she did the inmates at the school. It was a soldier, she said, who broke into her house.

Fred Hippler, however, who also grew up on the school grounds, relayed that in 1965, it was a boy from the school who broke into his house. The boy was caught after wearing Hippler’s brother Bobby’s clothes to church.

As was reported in the Fitchburg Sentinel in May 1970, that there had been 121 reported escapes from the school since the first of the year, and a legislative investigation of the school was underway.

At the time of the report, five youths were injured and 15 others escaped from the maximum-security cottage during a riot that erupted late one evening. According to one state police officer, electrical fixtures were torn from walls and ceilings, water and toilet fixtures were broken, two floors of the cottage were flooded, mattresses and blankets were set ablaze, furniture was broken and “strewn-about,” and paint was splattered in several rooms.

In all, more than 30 police officers were involved in quelling the riot, while area towns were notified of the escapes and roadblocks were established.

By the following November, the local newspaper reported the unofficial count for a 319-day period in 1970 as 337 escapees.

The Winds of Change

In the middle of the previous decade, a series of critical reports about inadequate conditions inside such reform schools had begun to emerge. According to a recent report of The Annie E. Casey Foundation entitled, “Closing Massachusetts’ Training Schools: Reflections Forty Years Later,” a state Senate report in 1967 described the Massachusetts approach to delinquent children as “a continuing nightmare,” and found that “the majority of children” confined in the state’s facilities “do not belong there.”

Most confined youth, the panel acknowledged, were mentally disabled, emotionally disturbed, school truants, or stubborn and neglected children, rather than serious or chronic lawbreakers.

As a result, Dr. John D. Coughlin, who was both the chairman of the Youth Services Board and director of the Department of Youth Services, and who had been an advocate of the philosophy of such industrial or “training” schools, resigned in 1969.

Then-Gov. Francis Sargent appointed Dr. Jerome G. Miller as director of the DYS in 1969, signaling his strong support for reform.

Miller’s strategy for reform, however, failed, as many reform school employees rebelled against his attempts to change the culture. Beginning in December 1971, Miller moved to close the state’s reform schools.

First, he removed all youth from the Shirley reform school, paroling them home, placing them in group or foster homes, or moving them to the state’s oldest and largest facility, the Lyman School.

A month later he closed Lyman, and by June 1972, Miller closed the three remaining large reform schools. Three smaller facilities followed suit later that year.

Hope for the Future

Today, said Shirley Sgt. Alfreda Cromwell, youthful offenders are treated differently. In September 2013, Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law a bill that keeps 17-year-olds who commit crimes out of adult court. Their cases are now heard in juvenile court, which is centered more on rehabilitation and offers more options.

Cromwell also discussed a November 2012 law entitled An Act Regarding Families and Children Engaged in Services, Chapter 240 of the Acts and Resolves of 2012, which replaced Child in Need of Services cases with Child Requiring Assistance cases.

Among other reforms, the new law seeks to divert children from the legal process, when appropriate, and direct them to behavioral, medical and mental health treatment and services.

Cromwell said she has noticed that the United States actually has the lowest crime rate compared with other countries, but that the U.S. is the most violent. She said that crime overall continued to decrease after the 1960s, but the money saved keeps getting filtered into the prisons.

A graph in the museum exhibit that depicts the juvenile incarceration rate of 13 industrialized nations drives home that point. Despite a rapid decline in youth confinement in recent years, the U.S. still locks up a larger share of the youth population than any other developed country.

“One of the underpinnings of the correction business has been that these kids are very different from the rest of us,” Miller told The Boston Globe in 1970, when speaking about youthful offenders. “That’s one thing we have to hit head on. We have to change that attitude and stress that they are the same as the rest of us.”

The recent changes in Massachusetts law concerning juvenile detention appear to be moving the state in the right direction. To get a peek into the past and see from whence we have come, drop by the Shirley Historical Society, located at 182 Center Road, on Mondays and Saturdays, between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., or by appointment by calling 978-425-9328.

The “Managing Delinquent Boys” exhibit will be on display until August.