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For Their Own Good

Florida juvenile justice: 100 years of hell at the Dozier School for Boys

MARIANNA

The boys were watching.

They had noticed the old men and the television trucks gathered at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

They were not allowed outside, but this day last October was about them, too. So said the plaque about to be fixed to the building called the White House.

May this building stand as a reminder of the need to remain vigilant in protecting our children as we help them to seek a brighter future.

The men outside called themselves the White House Boys. They were assured that the abuse they endured here 50 years ago — beatings that left them bloody, ruined their sleep, wrecked their marriages and destroyed their lives — would never be repeated. This was a different place now. The boys inside were safe.

After the ceremony, the superintendent would write to her staff: "I am proud to show what our Dozier is truly all about today."

But behind closed doors, were those boys safe and protected? Were they being nurtured toward brighter futures?

"When the media was around, they would hide us," said a boy named Matthew Schroeder. "They didn't want us saying a word to anybody, because they knew what we would say.

"We'd tell the truth."

• • •

Here is what the men there that day did not know:

That five months before, a boy had his ear sewn back together with 10 stitches after a scuffle with staffers.

That four months before, a 39-year-old guard punched a 16-year-old boy three times in the face and slammed him into a fence.

That a month before, a 16-year-old boy was attacked by other boys in an unsupervised bathroom.

Or that three days before, a boy who had been peeing blood for days sat down and wrote: "I was refused medical attention and I need to see an urologist about my kidneys."

Today, the state's oldest reform school houses about 130 of the 6,000 juveniles in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice.

They are kept behind fences topped with razor wire, at a place where kids have been abused for 100 years. Over the years boys have been beaten here, shackled here, hog-tied here. Kept in isolation, driven so crazy they ate glass. Eight died in a fire here, neglected by guards. Hundreds of men who were beaten here in the 1950s and '60s have sued the state. Dozens of boys are buried here on a little hill, their graves unidentified, the details forgotten.

What kind of place is the Dozier School for Boys today?

The Department of Juvenile Justice, citing the pending lawsuit and strict privacy laws, refused for months to let the St. Petersburg Times on campus to inspect conditions, interview boys or talk to staff. On Friday, as this story was headed to publication, DJJ officials agreed to schedule a visit.

For now, that leaves little more than the word of the state and the public record.

Using the state's public information laws, the Times obtained more than 8,000 documents to better understand the school's recent history. Those documents betray a place of abuse and neglect, of falsified records, bloody noses and broken bones.

In the past two years, according to the school's own reports:

A suicidal boy drank cleaning fluid when no one was watching.

A boy so disturbed he threatened to cut off his finger to prove he wasn't human climbed to a rooftop before guards could tackle him, breaking his arm.

Two boys went missing on campus for nine hours. Five staffers failed in their duties that day, and the superintendent of the high-security portion of Dozier didn't report the incident. When it came to light, he resigned.

Another guard slapped an inmate during a basketball game, bloodying his nose. The boy asked to call the state's abuse hotline, but was denied.

When an inmate is allowed to report abuse, the complaint goes to the state Department of Children and Families. In the past five years, DCF has opened 155 investigations at Dozier and verified seven cases of improper supervision, four of physical abuse, one of sexual abuse and one of medical mistreatment. An additional 33 cases had "some indicator" of abuse, mistreatment or neglect.

DCF's investigative summaries were released by a judge after the Times argued that the public has good reason to see the records. According to those documents:

In January 2006, a guard grabbed a boy by the neck and head-butted him, breaking the boy's nose.

In July 2006, a diabetic boy whose blood sugar was low was unresponsive for 20 minutes as two staffers ignored him. One staffer later quit and another, still on staff, was reprimanded.

One guard allegedly stuffed a boy in a laundry bag, and when the boy tried to chew through the strings, the guard encouraged others to scratch and pinch him. Investigators found "some indicators" of abuse: the boy's bruises. Without video or witnesses, the allegations are sometimes impossible to prove. The guard resigned.

Yet another guard chased a boy through the dining hall with a broom, broke the broom on a refrigerator, then chased the boy with the sharp end. The guard grabbed the boy in a headlock and fractured his jaw. The guard then tried to sabotage the investigation. He was placed on leave and is no longer on staff.

The Dozier campus sits on the edge of town on a patch of land carved out of the pines. Some of the buildings date to the early 1900s. Boys complain about mice, spiders and roaches.

"While in the Dining Hall I was eating my food and a roach crawled out of my food," a boy wrote in February. "This is not the first time this has happen."

The response from the staff?

"Dining Hall was cleaned and checked. We will control this as much as we can."

Late last year, a visiting supervisor found roaches in the suggestion box.

• • •

Matthew Schroeder is 18, and small for his age.

He was born with cystic fibrosis, a condition that requires daily medication and care. When Schroeder was arrested in the little town of Crawfordville for burglary and larceny, he landed at Dozier, because it was thought to be the facility best equipped to deal with his medical needs.

Schroeder said he spent the first 65 days at Dozier sick in his cell with vomiting and diarrhea, his stomach knotting. Schroeder can't digest food without medication, and day after day in June 2008, he said, he received his medication late or not at all.

"I couldn't get out of bed," he said.

"He was in excruciating pain," said his aunt, Susan Lidondici, who complained to the school.

Boys were often overmedicated or undermedicated. In a single week in September 2008, at least eight either missed getting their medication or nurses failed to document it.

Nurses at Dozier worked 12-hour shifts, plus overtime, because of staffing shortages. At times, the school had four nurses when it should have had nine. The starting salary for a licensed practical nurse at Dozier was until recently $11.80 per hour, below most all other nursing jobs in the area. At one point, an administrator warned of a "highly contagious bacteria" in the infirmary.

The head nurse repeatedly warned superiors about the shortages.

"I am very concerned for the youth in our care," she wrote in August 2008.

And in October 2008: "Our medical department has reached its most critical level … "

And in December, after she quit due to a stress-related medical condition, her replacement wrote: "We need nurses now! … I am unwilling to continue to jeopardize the well-being of the youth in our care."

Schroeder got so ill he spent a week at Shands Hospital in Gainesville. Doctors told his family his bowels were impacted and his condition was exacerbated at the school. He lost about 50 pounds there, he said.

On March 19, after almost a year, Matthew Schroeder walked out of the reform school.

"Hell," he called it.

• • •

What does it take to work at Dozier?

The state has two requirements — you must be at least 19 and have a high school diploma or equivalent. But superintendent Mary Zahasky, the school's sixth leader in eight years, expects more.

"The first thing we look for is someone with good character," she wrote in an e-mail to a potential applicant. She looks for someone who is "a good role model to teenage kids."

But a number of employees have criminal charges, including passing worthless checks, driving under the influence and domestic abuse.

In the past two years, one guard came to work reeking of alcohol and was referred to counseling. Another came in high on cocaine and marijuana. And another admitted to being a habitual drug abuser after he came to work high and was sent to the emergency room.

In 2005, the school hired James Edge. Three years before, the 265-pound man with a snake tattoo on his leg was arrested for domestic battery and violating a protective order. According to his wife's sworn complaint, Edge wrenched her arm behind her back, fracturing her shoulder.

Edge is the same officer involved in the May 2008 scuffle in which a boy's ear was split open. The following month, records show, he bloodied a boy's nose and slammed him against a fence, cutting his thumbs. Then Edge was fired. Officials now say they are investigating his hiring.

Guard Arthur Edmon Jr. posted photos on his MySpace page in which he makes obscene gestures and poses on a cash-covered table (caption: "f--- u haters"). He also posted a homemade rap video of friends dunking a basketball and pointing a gun at the camera.

Guard Frank Bernaldo has a MySpace page that contains sexual images and language and the following biographical nugget: "I like to go hunting but not for animals, only for people who piss me off."

"We didn't know about this," said DJJ spokesman Frank Penela. "We would certainly not want someone with a character that portrays negativity or violence or bad personal conduct to be working with kids."

Starting pay for an entry-level guard is about $11.29 an hour, or about $23,500 a year. "But we train them well," Penela said. That includes 240 hours in topics such as first aid, verbal de-escalation techniques, adolescent development, gang awareness and ethics.

John Bennett, 41, worked as a guard at Dozier for more than a year, often alone with boys, often at night, and sometimes, he said, as the sole adult in charge of three teens on suicide watch. Bennett took special education classes throughout his schooling, his brother said, and struggles to read and write.

"I have a learning disorder," he said.

"We were shocked that he got the job," said his brother, Ed Bennett. "We thought that maybe they'd hire him as a janitor or something."

Asked if training was hard, John Bennett said: "It was easy. They gave us all the answers to the tests."

Bennett said a boy once slapped him in the face. He told the boy not to do it again. The boy slapped him harder.

His biggest problem was with the supervisors. "They made fun of me."

They called him slow and stupid, he said, and ribbed him over mild infractions. One day, he was a minute late for work and got a stern warning. The next day, he came to work 15 minutes early and announced his arrival over the radio.

"Mr. Bennett, reporting for duty 15 minutes early, sir!"

That got him in trouble for using the radio.

"He wasn't retarded," spokesman Penela said. He doubts Bennett was helped with the test.

Bennett was fired in July 2008 for absences and sleeping on the job. He thought sleeping was a minor infraction because his own supervisor would regularly sleep in a van on the night shift.

Records show this is common. A nap might seem minor until you consider what happens when guards aren't looking.

Documents show that boys had oral sex in a van and in the showers. A boy said he was raped in the shower. A juvenile sexual offender roamed at night so frequently that boys would barricade their doors with their desks.

Fights often broke out in the showers. A boy from Yulee, who asked the Times to withhold his name because he was arrested as a juvenile, was blindsided as he entered the bathroom. "They came up behind me and hit me in the back of the head as I was walking in. I woke up on the floor."

His mother and father visited him a few days later.

"He looked terrible," said his mother, Laurie Bland. Black eye, constriction wounds on his neck, impact wounds on his chest, back and rib cage.

The boy doesn't know how long he was unconscious, just that it would not have happened had the guards been doing their jobs.

The boys on the outside say not all staff are bad. They can easily rattle off staffers who made an impact on them.

"The staff is generally there for the kids," said Chris Windau, who was arrested for breaking into a CiCi's Pizza. "But there are others who, it's just a job for them."

Child advocate Gus Barreiro took an interest in Dozier. The former state legislator from Miami was hired last fall to oversee Dozier and three other programs. He was fired in January after DJJ found adult pornography on his state laptop. He denies the charge. The rumor among the boys at Dozier was that he was helping them too much.

"That place is full of generational employees," said Barreiro, 50. "My great-grandfather worked there, grandfather worked there, so I work there."

Barreiro wanted to know why turnover was so high. "I was asking things like, 'What brought you here? What do you like about the job?' " he said. "The No. 1 answer was always benefits or retirement or salary or job security. It wasn't until you got to No. 5 or 6 that they said anything about working with kids.

"It's like working at Sea World and getting to No. 5 before you say you like whales."

• • •

Dozier isn't the place it used to be, because now boys have options to report mistreatment. They can file a grievance. They can call the abuse hotline.

But that system fails.

If they want to call the hotline, sometimes they have to phone in front of the alleged abuser.

"Twice, I asked to call abuse and they told me it wasn't an option," Matthew Schroeder said. "They told us if you called abuse and if it came back false, then they could press charges on you for making a false report and the maximum penalty was five years."

"They told us that all the time," said the boy from Yulee.

And grievances?

One boy wrote that a guard told him they "wipe their a---- with grievances." Another wrote, "I don't know why y'all have grievances. They never work."

On April 6, a boy wrote: "I'm afraid of Mr. black. He has an anger problem and I feel like he might hurt me."

The response from a supervisor: "I talk to Mr. Black about this youth he just Doing his Job."

Child advocate Cathy Corry filed a complaint in November after someone posted allegations on her watchdog Web site: Younger kids being beaten up; staff members sleeping, threatening boys to keep them quiet and falsifying reports.

Dozier's assistant superintendent dismissed them outright.

"All of the above allegations apparently came from the Justice4Kids Web site where anyone can report their own opinion!" wrote Milton Mooneyham. "We will conduct an internal investigation to disprove these allegations."

Asked whether an "investigation to disprove these allegations" is really an investigation, spokesman Penela defended the school's second-in-command.

"When we do an investigation, it's certainly unbiased, it's certainly thorough," he said.

Corry, who has been an activist for 10 years, wasn't surprised.

"It's pathetic," she said. "The child is viewed as a liar right away, so the child has to prove that they're not lying, and that's difficult for them to do."

• • •

Mark Caldwell checked into Room 115 at the Ramada Inn in Lake City, caught a few hours of sleep and was up before the sun.

In the lobby, he flipped through pictures of his only child.

Here was Justin cooking. Here he was on a lawn mower. Fishing. NASCAR. And here they were with matching haircuts.

"He's my baby," Caldwell said.

The photos stop when Justin hits puberty.

That's when Justin started getting into trouble. He stole money from a neighbor and threw a rock at a school bus. Then his stepmother caught him touching his little brother.

He was 13 when he was sentenced to a South Florida DJJ program, then later transferred to Dozier. His sentence was extended due to allegations of bad behavior, his father said.

He turned 18 in Dozier.

Then came Feb. 11, 2007.

What happened that morning is Justin's word against the guard's.

James Wooden said Justin elbowed him in the cafeteria, then head-butted him, knocking off his DJJ hat. Wooden tried to take down Justin, but their feet got tangled. When Wooden stood up, Justin kicked him.

Justin claimed Wooden head-butted him. Several boys testified that Wooden slapped Justin on the forehead, according to news coverage of the short trial.

In court, Justin's attorney pointed out that Wooden was 5 inches taller than Justin, which would have made it hard for Justin to head-butt him. The attorney also showed it would have been hard for Justin to kick Wooden, based on how the two were positioned.

A jury had to decide who they wanted to believe. A seven-year DJJ employee, or an inmate?

What is known is that later that day, Feb. 11, a video camera caught Justin standing still. A heavy-set guard grabs him by the throat, slams him backward on the ground, then chokes him. Guards pick up Justin and are leading him away when he falls and slams his head on a table. The guards drag him to the middle of the room where they leave him, bleeding. His legs twitch.

Police charged Justin with battery on a detention officer. Two months later, the superintendent and the guard, Alvin Speights, were fired.

The DJJ secretary at the time, Walt McNeil, called for a "change of culture" at the school.

Justin was sentenced to five years in prison, the maximum.

The guard, Speights, was not indicted.

"It's a crime what they did," Mark Caldwell said. "If my neighbor's dog walks into my yard to do its business and I kick the dog and somebody sees me, I'm going to serve time."

Every few months Caldwell, a tool and die maker, rents a fuel-efficient car and drives 350 miles, from Spanish Fort, Ala., to the Lake City Correctional Institution, his Wal-Mart watch set to Eastern time — "Justin's time."

Every tick is a second closer to 2012, Justin's release date.

Mark thinks about the man he'll take home that day. He'll be 23. He'll have an arm covered with prison tattoos. His closest relationships will have been with criminals.

What Florida citizen, Caldwell wonders, believes that the best treatment for a 13-year-old is to jail him for 10 years? How did slamming Justin's head into the concrete help to reform him? What kind of life can he expect to lead?

The White House Boys, those men who came of age at the school in the 1950s and '60s, overwhelmingly say they grew up angry and distrustful. They took out that anger on their wives and kids, even on strangers. They went back to jail.

Five decades later, can Mark Caldwell reasonably expect anything different for his son?

Caldwell bought Justin a '92 Camaro. When the time comes, he will teach a grown man how to drive, how to pay for gas, how to behave on his first date.

He climbs into his rental and heads toward the prison, quarters in his pocket for vending machine pizza. He drives past a park and a forest and a community college and pulls up to a 894-bed prison surrounded byed by razor wire and men with dogs. He walks past a giant Florida flag and disappears inside.

• • •

Reform in Marianna?

It was ordered in 1909, when investigators found faked records and the superintendent quit.

And again in 1911, when the superintendent was hitting kids with a leather strap.

And again in 1913, when children were hired out to pick cotton and the superintendent resigned and laws were changed.

And again in 1914, 1920, 1921, 1953, 1963, 1968, 1976, 1982 and 2007, two months after Justin Caldwell was beaten, when the DJJ head said: "There are systemic operational problems at our Dozier facility that span the chain of command."

Was it fixed?

Can it be fixed?

Matthew Schroeder's aunt: "The culture in that place was established long, long ago and it's just going to continue.''

Matthew Schroeder: "Change the atmosphere, or cut it off."

Mark Caldwell: "Dozier is a place of evil. Dozier needs to be shut down."

Now comes a new DJJ secretary, Frank Peterman Jr., a Baptist preacher and former state representative from St. Petersburg.

He said Dozier has a cultural problem. He has no tolerance for hurting kids, and his agency fires guards who do. He is already seeing results: lower numbers of employees filing for workman's compensation and fewer kids being sent to hospitals.

"What we've tried to do is change the culture … to make sure we try to back off the kids,'' he said. "We will become restraint-free.''

Peterman, appointed in February 2008, said he is focused on prevention, transparency and verbal de-escalation, and on hiring better people with better pay. Example: Today, Dozier's 10 nursing positions are filled thanks to a pay hike this year.

Better pay means getting more money from the Legislature to fund a place that has been strapped from its beginning.

So what about the people who control the money?

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, is arranging a visit to Dozier for the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, on which he serves. If the findings are true, "I would be as appalled and outraged as any human being."

So would Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, she said, if she knew of any abuse. But so far, "I have not gotten any calls whatsoever except from you."

Sen. Al Lawson, a Democrat who has served in the Legislature for 27 years and whose district includes Marianna, initially said he did not accept the Times' findings about the school, and did not want the Times to send him the DCF reports.

"I've not had one complaint about conditions out there,'' he said.

But he did review the reports, and later expressed concern. "It's imperative and important that they have a way of dealing with the problem up there."

In February, Lawson spoke at a Jackson County Chamber of Commerce meeting in Marianna, according to the local newspaper. Near the end of the meeting, someone suggested that the plaque be removed from the White House. For some, the plaque is like a stain on the town.

Lawson told the crowd that he would try to get it removed.

Eleven days later, a boy was kicked and stomped by other youths, then placed in isolation. He asked to call the abuse hotline, to let somebody know what was going on. He was denied.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery @sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

About the story

This story is based on more than 8,000 documents obtained under the state's public records laws, including e-mails, internal incident reports, grievances filed by boys at the school, personnel records, surveillance video and DCF investigative summaries. For months, the Times was denied access to the school, its students and its staff. Friday afternoon, as this story was headed to publication, officials with the Department of Juvenile Justice agreed to schedule a visit.

Florida juvenile justice: 100 years of hell at the Dozier School for Boys 10/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 13, 2009 11:49am]

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