Head Start sues Knox County

by Mike Kroll

On Monday a lawsuit against Knox County and Sheriff Jim Thompson was filed in the Knox County Circuit Court by West Central Community Services of Monmouth ñ the organization that provides Head Start services to children in Knox, Warren and Henderson counties. The complaint alleges that the new Knox County Jail located on South Kellogg Street between Simmons and Tompkins Streets falls within a proscribed 200 feet of their adjacent facility at 277 East Tompkins Street. The Illinois County Jail Act prohibits jails from being located closer than 200 feet from "any building used exclusively for school purposes."

Until just about three years ago, Head Start services in Galesburg were conducted in the Harrington Home on West Simmons Street, across the street from the current jail. At about the same time that Head Start officials were looking to relocate, the Jail Committee and Knox County Board was in the midst of selecting the location for a new Knox County Jail. The site (and even construction) of this new jail has been controversial and even the subject of another lawsuit since the issue first arose in the mid-1990s.

Galesburg City officials advocated for an addition to the present Public Safety Building but the architects determined in the fall of 1999 (months after the public safety sales tax referendum passed on the second attempt during the April 1999 election) that such a design was not feasible. By spring 2000, the Jail Committee was looking toward the present site that was already owned by the county. During the intervening winter, Head Start officials signed a 20-year lease for the Tompkins Street facility ñ the former home of Galesburg Sheet Metal Works ñ and extensive renovations were begun.

Even before Head Start began operations at their new facility, executive director Diann Gravino stood before the Knox County Board to complain about the pending construction of the new jail next door. Gravino and Head Start board members have met with Thompson, Knox County State’s Attorney Paul Mangieri and members of the Knox County Board to discuss the issue on numerous occasions since February 2000. All of these meetings have been held behind closed doors at the request of Head Start officials, but Knox County officials believed they has satisfactorily addressed most ñ if not all ñ of Gravino’s objections.

Gravino sent out a press release announcing the lawsuit Monday afternoon. On Tuesday, she explained her motivations and desired outcome. "I am very concerned about anything to do with jail activities in such close proximity to our children. The children in our care shouldn’t be exposed to the jail or the people who may be incarcerated within the jail. At times the jail houses sex offenders and pedophiles and we obviously don’t desire any such people to frequent the area surrounding our building and playground."

"We have tried to work in good faith with the Sheriff and county officials about this matter and we believed we had reached an agreement that would ensure the safety and well being of children attending Head Start. There is no question in my mind that the new jail is too close to our facility but I had hoped that a suitable fence or barrier could be constructed to better separate our property from the jail. It has now become clear that Knox County will not honor this agreement and that is what forced us to seek a court remedy."

The 3-page lawsuit was filed by attorney James Baber of Monmouth and asks the court to place an injunction blocking Knox County’s use of the new jail until the county either "provide[s] sufficient buffers and barricades to insulate the children attending Head Start School from the actions of the Knox County Sheriff’s Department… in handling prisoners" or "award damages … sufficient to move [Head Start] from its present location to a suitable location away from the county jail."

Thompson is quite blunt in his assessment of this lawsuit. "It has absolutely no merit whatsoever! Not only have we contended from the beginning that Head Start doesn't meet the legal definition of a school according to state statutes but that the design of the new jail in and of itself already prevents any of the problems she [Gravino] claims to be worried about. We already promised not to use any prisoners for outdoor maintenance and all prisoner transfers will be conducted in our sally port and out of public view. The new cells have only small sealed windows with translucent coverings that not only prevent our inmates from seeing outside but make it impossible to be heard outside the facility."

"The real problem with this situation is that we have tried to be good neighbors and work with Head Start to address their concerns. We have met with them and believed we hammered out an agreement only to receive a written document months later that bore no resemblance to our discussions. For example, we put up the cyclone fence as they requested but nothing we do is enough; they now apparently want a stone or brick wall. If these meetings had been open to the public as we requested it would clear now that it is they that failed to honor our agreements. I am not about to let this group delay the opening of the jail or legally extort the county into building them a new facility."

Mangieri admits to being taken by surprise upon hearing of the lawsuit. "This jail design and location was approved by the Illinois Department of Corrections and is as state-of-the-art as we could make it. I really do not believe Ms. Gravino has any need to worry that the new jail site poses a threat to the children attending Head Start and we have attempted at great length to make this clear in our discussions. I believe Knox County has behaved as a good neighbor and will continue to do so. Hopefully this matter can be resolved outside of the courtroom."

Regardless of how you measure it, there is no question that the new jail is within the 200-foot distance to Head Start’s playground and building. The lot lines are adjacent and the administrative portions of the structure are literally within yards of the Head Start parking lot. The actual cellblock sections of the new jail are further removed but within 200 feet of the Head Start playground. While arguing about the definition of "school" may seem like legal nitpicking it is upon such obscure definitional disagreements that case law is made.

From a common-sense perspective, the real issue would appear to be whether or not the proximity of the new Knox County Jail places the children served by Head Start at any increased risk. If the jail functions and operates as described by the Sheriff, he's confident it won't. Now it looks as if a judge may decide.