Sen. John Braun: Green Hill School deserves second chance – now let’s see results


As someone who believes in second chances, I believe the young people serving time at Green Hill School in Chehalis deserve a second chance to get their lives pointed in a better direction.

Green Hill itself also deserves a second chance. A two-part series recently published in The Chronicle describes changes in security and other procedures and in the facility itself. It summarizes comments from officials as indicating things are headed in the right direction.

That sounds very encouraging, but only time will tell. And to be blunt, Green Hill has nowhere to go but up.

Repeated riots, multiple drug overdoses, smuggling of contraband into the facility, employees arrested and charged with crimes occurring on the premises, gang activity, lack of proper supervision — that’s quite a rap sheet for any institution, especially one operated by a state agency that claims “integrity” and “transparency” among its values.

To be fair, the facility has long had its challenges. For decades, Green Hill had already been home to the most dangerous of the state's youngest offenders. Then came the “JR to 25” law, created in 2018, which foolishly allows the placement of young adults in the same general space as what Gov. Jay Inslee recently described in a television interview as “young kids.”

Unfortunately for the staff at Green Hill, it’s their job to make this flawed ideology work — or at least keep it from colliding with reality in ways that cause harm.

I visited Green Hill about a month ago, after exchanging strongly worded letters with Inslee in February about the troubling situation at the facility. I met with the interim superintendent, who is quoted extensively in The Chronicle series. He says all the right things, and I hope he and his staff can deliver.

There is less reason to place faith in the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, which oversees Green Hill and is therefore also responsible for helping its residents pursue those second chances.

When DCYF was launched in mid-2018, spun off mostly from the Department of Social and Health Services, the Inslee administration hailed it as the culmination of a two-year effort to “transform the way Washington serves at-risk children and families.”

That tagline doesn’t seem to fit with a facility that houses mostly young adults from ages 18-25. Also, the agency’s performance has been far from transformational, unless you count the huge financial settlements the state has been forced to pay due to DCYF’s terrible decisions. This is the same department which in January placed a 3-week-old Port Townsend baby with its drug-addicted father, unsupervised, which equaled a death sentence for the infant.

If at-risk children and young adults are truly the focus, it’s puzzling that The Chronicle stories note the new recreation center at Green Hill is a “net zero-emission building, powered by solar panels,” and “grass on the grounds is watered by an onsite water reserve.” That sounds just like something Inslee — or the official speaking for DCYF — would prefer to brag about, even though it seems disconnected from the agency’s mission. Seeing how the rec center alone cost taxpayers an eye-opening $31.8 million, you wonder how much of that amount was driven by Inslee’s climate crusade.

My concern is about the security climate at Green Hill and the climate for learning and rehabilitation. How the grass is watered should be a much lower priority than keeping the grass from continuing to be a landing zone for contraband pitched over the security fence.

Also, it’s not difficult to believe the interim superintendent when he tells the newspaper how Green Hill is constantly recruiting for staff. The DCYF official paints it as a compensation issue, but that rings hollow. While no worker wants to feel undercompensated, it’s more likely that prospective employees learn about the drug abuse, assaults, riots, and gang activity and decide Green Hill is not right for them at any salary.

While other appropriations or omissions kept me from supporting the supplemental operating budget adopted by a majority of legislators during this year’s session, I was glad to see the governor did not veto a $400,000 appropriation that will fund a 10-part audit of the state’s juvenile rehabilitation system. Staffing, security and safety are among the aspects to be examined.

The Joint Legislative Accountability and Review Committee will conduct the audit, which means it will be high-quality work; the downside is the JLARC report isn’t due until mid-2026.

In the meantime, let’s be optimistic that Green Hill is finally changing its operating procedures to mandate accountability and stop the destructive behaviors and policies that have generated all the negative headlines and gotten in the way of the facility’s purpose.

If the facility follows through, it can only be good for the young people who are there to simultaneously pay their debt to society and hopefully turn their lives around in the process. It should be helpful for employee recruiting and retention as well. The community can feel good about the institution in its midst, as can the Washington taxpayers who are footing the bill.

Credit for this should be shared among local law enforcement leaders, the staff who are at Green Hill for the right reasons, and some in the news media — especially The Chronicle and Seattle’s Fox 13 television. They all came forward with the stories and dug into the details, painting a picture of what was really happening. I was happy to work with them to put a spotlight on the needed changes.

It’s disappointing that the Inslee administration has failed so badly on Green Hill, to go with all of its other mismanagement disasters these past 12 years. Either way, Green Hill is under the microscope more than any time I can recall. That’s good for transparency and accountability.

The facility deserves a second chance. Now we need to see results. Green Hill School and the next governor must do better.


Sen. John Braun of Centralia serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.