Former Shuman Detention Center Principal: ‘We have an obligation to care for all of our children.’

Shuman Juvenile Detention Center has been discussed and debated for over a year. What should we do moving forward? 

Jay Moser is an educator and the former principal for the now closed Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. He writes about his experience as an educator and proposes that the facility should remain county-run in the future.

This a part of a series that explores the juvenile justice landscape in Pittsburgh with a focus on education and mental health. These stories were funded by Staunton Farm Foundation and The Grable Foundation. 

I have been in education for 30 years. I’m in my 20th year as a principal. I was the principal at Shuman, the school for juveniles in the Allegheny County Jail, an alternative school, a regular public school and a charter school. I was also a teacher for nine years.

I am fortunate to have experienced every part of our educational system. I worked with a wide variety of students, students from different income levels, family structure, and trauma levels. There isn’t much I haven’t seen, heard or dealt with. There’s no ego in that. I have benefited from every encounter I have had with a student in these 30 years.

I believe Shuman should be a publicly run facility, rather than privately managed. Allegheny County should run Shuman.

We heard a lot about it when it first closed. It should have closed. 

But prior to its closing, it was, in some ways, effective. There were dedicated educators working to help the boys and girls. With the proper leadership, commitment and oversight, Shuman can be rehabilitative rather than punitive.

We were a trauma-informed school and we worked hard to guarantee our students understood the material and understood life–it’s consequences and its opportunities. We worked on building an environment of accountability and empathy.

This yielded many successes. We were able to have a student graduate while detained at Shuman, which had never happened previously. Through the mentorship of the youth care workers and the teaching staff, this young man excelled in school and became a leader at the center.

At his graduation ceremony, as he walked to the gym, everyone there, including his family, lined both sides of the hallway and cheered for him as he made his way to the gym, dressed in his cap and gown. 

It was an incredible accomplishment for him and for us. We didn’t often get to see the results. This time, we did! 

We also worked to ensure the students never felt alone. 

After arriving, a student would have a hearing within three days to determine whether they were to be held or released. If the student was detained, and most were, they were brought back to school. Our school team met with them immediately. They were often upset and emotional. They met with my counselor, my special education teacher, my dean of students or an available teacher. We made sure to hear them and make them feel seen.

Although we had these successes, we also had many challenges. 

We struggled to help our students catch up educationally. Often, their educational background was piecemeal, a credit here, another one there. We knew that without a strong, positive educational experience, our kids would quit school. It was difficult to get some of them to buy in —  the failures and frustration were too entrenched. 

Another challenge for us was the rate at which the kids would return. There were kids we saw four or five times in one school year. Very little had changed about their life when they went home. They needed strategies, options and mentoring. 

All of these were things that could be offered at Shuman, but weren’t. At least not in a systematic way. 

Shuman’s closing cannot be blamed on any one person. It was a systemic failure: a shortage of staff, no clear decision-making hierarchy, and an oversight committee that never met. 

As the conversation now moves towards Shuman’s next iteration, I want to propose some ideas  I hope will spark a conversation.There are three areas where we can support our youth within the facility.

One, the people of Allegheny County need a short-term juvenile facility. 

There are some kids who need to be there. Sometimes it’s for their safety; other times it’s for everyone else’s safety. Either way, a facility like Shuman can offer both.

In the past, too many kids were taken there. Juvenile probation and the courts must ensure that only the kids who need to be there are there. The program needs to include strong components of mental health treatment, education, restorative justice, career planning and transition back to their community. All of that needs to occur with a dedicated group of professionals committed to seeing the youth succeed.

Second, there needs to be space where juveniles charged as adults would be held separate from the youth held there as part of the short term program.

The current situation of holding juveniles in an adult facility, the Allegheny County Jail, is unacceptable. Juveniles have different needs than adults. Dedicating a facility to serving minors (even those charged as adults) will allow for access to services that are tailored to the needs of young adults whose brains are still developing. The majority, if not all of the kids at the ACJ, are eventually going to return to our communities within Allegheny County. It is our responsibility to provide the guidance, education, and support they need to be successful. 

Third, the facility should be designated as “placement,” or where a child would receive rehabilitation services after they are adjudicated, or complete their trial. 

Currently, if a judge determines that a youth is guilty, they are placed outside of the county. This removes them from the only support systems they have ever known. The most important support system for these youth is their family; moving them three hours away removes a vital component of a strong treatment plan. Housing kids in Pittsburgh allows their families to see them on a regular basis and allows the family to participate in a counseling program.   

An essential piece of restorative justice is making an effort to make right what or who was harmed. If we send our kids away, the harm is never addressed by the parties involved. It can lead to more pain and suffering in our county. 

Often, these kids have a fractured educational experience. They may be behind on credits or close to aging out of the system. Connecting them to their school is an indispensable component to keeping them on track to graduate. Without such a plan, we will most likely see these youths again in our juvenile justice system.  

As citizens, we have an obligation to care for all of our children and the problems that arise in a society that we create. It’s time for a different approach to helping and supporting our youth in Allegheny County.