New super promises reform at Dozier

Michael Cantrell discusses plans for Dozier turn around.
Floridan Staff Writer
Published: January 24, 2010

Michael Cantrell, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys’ seventh superintendent in nine years, admits that Dozier “has
a ways to go” and that “things need to tightened up” for the facility as a whole.

Cantrell does, however, have faith in the changes under way and the positive direction he plans to lead the facility

Cantrell, 42, started as superintendent on Jan. 4. He has 21 years of experience working with juveniles, and has
worked for the state for the past five-years. Cantrell took over from former superintendent Mary Zahasky, who
stepped down on Dec. 17 after an unfavorable DJJ performance review.

After leaving his position as regional director for Detention Services for North Florida, Cantrell came to Marianna to
try and repair the state’s oldest reform school. He agrees that his previous experience differs from his duties as
superintendent, but says, “I can promise you, it’s going to get better around here.”  

Cantrell graduated from Union College in Kentucky, where he studied sociology and psychology.
“I’ve known since I was 15 that this was the line of work I wanted to get into,” Cantrell said. “I helped start a peer
counseling program in high school, where I learned the value of this type of work. It’s about impacting lives.”
Cantrell explained that he came to Dozier for that reason — to “impact lives”.

Given Dozier’s current state and tarnished reputation, Cantrell seems to have his work cut out for him.
The history of allegations of abuse, the recent case of an inmate who had videotape of his abuse at the hands of a
guard, and the multiple managerial and staff issues are among some of the many hurdles Cantrell must face. Now,
along with the lack of stability in the superintendent position and continuous media surveillance, Dozier is facing
more scrutiny after failing an annual review by Department of Juvenile Justice officials.

The annual review was completed prior to Cantrell assuming leadership.

However, Cantrell addressed these issues in an interview Friday by explaining that obviously, improvements need to
be made.

“There’s nothing I can do about the past, all I can do is work on Jan. 4 and on,” Cantrell said. “But what I can tell you
is we’re tightening up, and we’ve raised expectations.”

DJJ officials spent three days last October reviewing records and interviewing residents and staff members. As a
result of the findings, Dozier failed the review. According to the quality assurance report, there are many areas in
need of improvement.

“I’ll be honest with you, there were two main areas that caused the failure,” Cantrell said. “First, our medical services.
We failed that standard because we didn’t have a full-time doctor and had a shortage of nurses. However, we now
have a full-time doctor on campus, and all nurse positions are filled.

“Then there was an issue of safety and security, which was another standard we didn’t meet, but one we are taking
all measures to correct,” Cantrell noted.

According to the DJJ report, investigators found that guards were losing their keys frequently, weren’t frisking the
boys properly, and at times were failing to transport the boys according to the specified guidelines. Cantrell said
administration was working to address these issues. The regular loss of keys led to the implementation of a new key
control, which includes key pads and a permanent key ring that will never leave campus, Cantrell said.

The youth surveys taken by DJJ officials also identified areas of concern. Seven of the nine boys surveyed said
guards have threatened them or they have heard guards threaten other boys, and five of the nine said they did not
feel safe.

When asked about these issues Friday, Cantrell responded, “Is it possible that a guard has said, ‘I’m going to beat
your you know what?’ It wouldn’t shock me. Do I think that the boys also look at these surveys as a way to get back at
this place? Absolutely I do. But regardless, I am doing everything possible to assure that this behavior is not

“Any staff member caught cursing at the kids, I will send home on the spot. No questions asked.”

Cantrell is also currently in the process of evaluating the facility as a whole to identify the areas needed for
improvement. He has met with all the department heads to set his expectations for all staff members, and has
personally walked through all the resident cottages to observe the boys and assess their habits. Cantrell added that
he is also constantly observing the staff and gauging their attitudes.

“I want to be sure we have all the right people in all the right positions,” he said.

As expected, the recent evaluation failure has attracted more negative attention for Dozier and has not gone
unnoticed in the state’s capital. The St. Petersburg Times reported Friday that Gov. Charlie Crist said if the state can’
t fix the school, “then you can do what’s necessary, including shutting it down.”

The Times also quoted Sen. Victor Crist, chairman of the Senate committee that recommends funding for corrections

“Right now we’re in conversation mode. We have to make some very serious decisions, and this looks like a no-
brainer,” the Tampa Republican state senator said.

Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, also commented on the issue, and was clear in her assurance that after speaking to
Sen. Crist personally, she was confident there are no plans to close Dozier.

“I spoke with Senator Crist and he said that there are budget issues surrounding all correction facilities. But as far as
Dozier is concerned, there are no plans on anyone’s radar to close the facility. DJJ doesn’t want it to close and
neither do I or a majority of my constituents,” Coley said.

Cantrell responded to the talk of closure by saying, “I have been assured that Dozier is not going to close and that
we will receive all the resources we need to improve every facet of what goes on here.”

According to Cantrell, one of the biggest improvements is the creation and implementation of an electronic data
collection system. Currently, most of the school’s data is recorded by hand, making it difficult to sort through and
identify trends.

“With this new system, we will have all the data in one central place, which will allow us to pinpoint any problem areas.
At the click of a button, we would be able to identify issues such as the cottage with the most disciplinary problems,
or a time period with the most grievances. The collection of this data would then prompt us to investigate these areas
and solve the problem,” Cantrell said.

In addition to the data collection system, Cantrell hopes to incorporate programs in hydroponics, computer science
as well as a possible culinary arts program. Cantrell explained that not all students want to drive nails or work under
cars. he said, and these programs could be great additions to the current vocational programs.
With all the negative news lately, the positive has been constantly overlooked, Cantrell said.

“We have numerous vocational programs, all of which have been successful in the past. The kids really enjoy them
and they teach skills on many levels,” Cantrell said.

The boys have many options, including training in plumbing, auto mechanics, masonry, carpeting, general facility
maintenance as well as CPR and lifeguard training.

There is also the Fetch program, which includes an on-campus kennel for dogs adopted from shelters. This program
gives the boys an opportunity to provide obedience training and house-breaking for the dogs. The dogs can then be
adopted for free by the public.

“The Fetch Program is great for teaching patience and empathy. The boys learn to care for the animal and form a
bond, which is something some struggle to do,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell said regardless of what the media reports or the talk going around, he plans to focus solely on the
turnaround of Dozier.

“We have nothing to hide here,” he said. “We want the community to be involved, and we are making strides to turn
this place around. We will get this place back to where it needs to be, and we hope the community will help us in their