By John N. Mitchell
For the first time in its 193-year history, Glen Mills Schools has an African-American executive director.
It’s also the first time the school has no students.
The state Department of Health ordered the removal of the students in March, after investigations by the department and a local news organization revealed staff at the Delaware County all-boys reformatory school — the oldest in the nation — had been abusing students and covering it up for decades. The department announced in April that it was rescinding the school’s 14 licenses and closing it down. The school is appealing the decision.
Three months later, the Glen Mills Schools Board of Managers named Christopher Spriggs acting executive director. Spriggs, who began his career at Glen Mills as a trigonometry teacher in 1994, was one of just two candidates — the other was an external candidate — the board considered.
Spriggs welcomes the challenge of re-opening the beleaguered school.
“I have an affinity for helping young, budding males — helping them develop, helping them to move forward and aspire to great things,” Spriggs said. “I thought I had the credentials and the temperament to come in and navigate the organization through these tough waters.
“It’s been difficult,” he continued. “But I think in this crisis there is a tremendous opportunity to put things in place organizationally that will make it better for everyone, most importantly the youth that come here.”
Spriggs’ plan is to eventually re-open the school, but on a much smaller scale — with no more than 20 students. He called it a pilot program.
“It only makes sense to do this slow, gradually and the right way,” he said.
But some don’t think that’s a good idea.
“An institution that has abused children for decades shouldn’t be allowed to re-open,” said Michaela Soyer, a sociology professor at Hunter College in New York City. “This was not an isolated incident, but brutalizing students was part of the fabric of Glen Mills.”
Soyer learned about the abuse in 2014 when she was a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University and she interviewed prison inmates who had spent time at Glen Mills. She said she notified the state Department of Human Services about her findings.
Soyer said a pilot program like the one Spriggs has suggested “could be opened anywhere and run by people who have not failed the children in their care as badly as the administrators and staff members at Glen Mills did.”
Spriggs said the stories of abuse — which he says he’s prohibited from discussing publicly for legal reasons — are “heartwrenching” and “painful to hear.”
“If I could go back in time and change things, I would,” said Spriggs, “but I can’t. But what I can do is put together a program that protects the safety and security of youths at a high level and present a program that gains the confidence of the people that we need to gain that confidence from in order to open back up.”
Spriggs, 47, said he understands where the boys come from.
Spriggs and his older sister were raised by their single mother, Flora Spriggs, in a “rough area” of Dover, Delaware, “with drug dealers and the criminals very close by.”
“My mother was like so many other strong Black women who instill morals and values in their children that I carry to this day,” Spriggs said.
Spriggs graduated from Delaware State University in 1994 with a degree in political science and went right to work at Glen Mills upon graduating. His fellow faculty members named him Teacher of the Year in 2002. In 2010, Spriggs earned a master’s in administrative justice from Wilmington University, and in 2015 he earned a doctorate in business administration from Wilmington University.
In 2008, Spriggs and his wife Tracy co-founded the Spriggs Young Men’s Retreat. Based on the philosophy of Frederick Douglass, the retreat, which attracts 40 at-risk boys and teenagers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware — most of them African American — is a free weekend program that offers mentoring and life-skills workshops.
“I’m keenly aware of the need for African-American male role models,” Spriggs said. “This is just part of the contribution, albeit a very important one, that I want to make.”
Soon after he was named acting executive director, Spriggs began consulting with experts in the field of trauma prevention. Stevie Grassetti, an assistant professor of psychology at West Chester University, has done some training sessions with the remaining staff at the school and said she expects the university to be more involved if the school gets its licenses back.
Grassetti said she has not known Spriggs very long, but she is impressed by his desire to re-open the school and basically start from scratch.
“He seems to be sensitive to the needs and is aware of the challenge,” she said. “With his credentials, he could have bailed on the school and found another job. That says a lot about his character.”
Spriggs also has initiated a collaboration with the Grafton Integrated Health Network in Winchester, Virginia, and plans to implement its award-winning, trauma-informed Ukeru Behavioral Management Program. The program is based on the belief that physical restraint is unproductive, and that behavioral and educational interventions should begin with the premise that comfort is a better option than control.
“There is no doubt about it that we have a long, uphill climb in front of us,” Spriggs said. “But I think we are headed in the right direction.”
John N. Mitchell is a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.