Feds: Florida Failed Housed Students

Published: Saturday, December 3, 2011 at 10:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 3, 2011 at 10:48 p.m.

The U.S. Department of Justice has blasted the state for failing to properly treat and protect children who were
housed at the now-shuttered Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, Florida's first and oldest state-run reform school that
closed in June after 111 years of operation.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice's failure to oversee the program and prevent children from being
abused and neglected suggests other programs have similar issues, according to the report by the Justice
Department's Civil Rights Division.

"Although Dozier and JJOC (the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center on Dozier's campus) are now shuttered, these
problems persist due to the weaknesses in the state's oversight system and from a correspondent lack of training
and supervision," the report said. "Our findings remain relevant to the conditions of confinement for the youth
confined in Florida's remaining juvenile justice facilities."

The Justice Department's investigation, announced in 2010 to then-Gov. Charlie Crist, showed "reasonable cause
to believe that the state of Florida was engaged in a pattern or practice of failing to have proper measures of
accountability that led to serious deficiencies."

The Justice Department alleged many instances in which the state violated the constitutional rights of the boys,
ages 13 to 21, confined to Dozier, and said the state must take immediate measures to " assess the full extent of its
failed oversight" to protect children at its other facilities.

The state must also strengthen its oversight processes by implementing a more rigorous system of hiring, training
and accountability, the report said.

DJJ spokesman C.J. Drake said Florida has already implemented a number of reforms and has seen a dramatic
reduction in the use of physical techniques to control children. He also said the state has closed or substantially
reduced 23 residential programs statewide since 2008 because of performance issues.

The Department of Justice found:

Staff used excessive force on youths, including choking and mechanical restraints. It documented incidents caught
on tape in which guards violently pushed youths to the ground, and struck and choked youths. Staff unlawfully
shackled youths with mechanical restraints as a first response to youths who did not respond to verbal commands.

Youths were often disciplined for minor infractions through inappropriate uses of lengthy and unnecessary isolation
without due process. The report documented one case in which a boy was kept in isolation — inside a small cell with
a concrete-slab bed and thin mattress — for two weeks.

Staff were not appropriately trained and had a generally " laissez-faire attitude" toward suicidal youth. The report
noted that average pay for direct-care staff fell below $12 an hour, well below the nationwide median hourly wage
for correctional officers of $18.78.

The safety of youths was compromised as a result of their relocation to the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center (a
more restrictive and punitive facility on the Dozier campus).

The state failed to provide necessary and appropriate rehabilitative services to address addiction, mental health or
behavioral needs, which served as a barrier to the youths' ability to return to the community and not reoffend.

Youths were subjected to unnecessary and unconstitutional frisk searches. Dozier youths were frisk searched more
than 10 times per day.