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Florida juvenile justice officials tout changes at Dozier School for Boys, but don't show them

MARIANNA — A hundred years of nightmares were born here at the state's oldest reform school, inside the boarded up buildings, in the White House and in the isolation unit and in the old cottages between the pines.

But the woman who runs the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys now wants you to believe this is a different place.

She can turn on a computer and peek inside nearly every building on campus. She can check her Blackberry and see what kids are complaining about. She can inspect data trends that identify spikes in the number of conflicts between staff and kids.

"When I came here, I knew that there were problems," said Mary Zahasky, 54, who was hired as superintendent in 2007. "And you feel like, Oh my gosh! Do I really want to do this? It certainly needed some changing."

After asking for months, the Times was allowed on campus Tuesday to talk to Zahasky and other Department of Juvenile Justice officials about the school's record of abuse and neglect. They did not dispute problems in the recent past, detailed Sunday in a Times special report. However, they still refuse to allow reporters to tour the campus, look in classrooms or talk to boys or staff. They ferried reporters in a van directly from the front gate to an administration building.

In the past five years, investigators from the Department of Children and Families have 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. Thirty-three cases had "some indicator" of abuse, mistreatment or neglect.

But the officials said Tuesday that they've had no "verified" abuse this year, and they attribute that to a cultural change.

"My goal has been to move from a correctional model to a therapeutic model," Zahasky said. "It's like this giant cruise ship. And it's been going a course, but we'd like to change the course it's going. But if you do it too quick, too fast, what happens? It might completely fall over."

That change has meant weeding out employees who hurt kids. Officials say the staff accused in the verified cases have quit or been fired. They acknowledged flaws in a hiring process that put a man who had recently broken his wife's shoulder in charge of troubled kids. The man was fired in 2008 after witnesses saw him punch a boy in the face.

"We have to change the way we evaluate applicants," said Darryl Olson, assistant secretary for residential services.

A number of employees have criminal charges ranging from DUI to passing worthless checks to battery. In the past two years, at least three have come to work drunk or high.

Zahasky said she can't vouch for the character of all her employees because she doesn't conduct every interview, and background screenings, dictated by state statute, are limited.

Officials are considering changes in the way boys can report abuse. Several former Dozier inmates told the Times that guards threatened them if they asked to call the abuse hotline. Olson said the agency has many monitors in place to pinpoint abuse and act quickly.

"What I'm proud of is that we as an agency don't have to depend on the media or advocacy groups to tell us what we should already know about our programs," he said.

Zahasky, mother of two, grandmother of two, has a master's in education with an emphasis in counseling and guidance. She joined the juvenile justice department in 1999. She was defensive at times during the three-hour interview.

Zahasky, the sixth superintendent in eight years, said she wanted to stay at Dozier for a few more years, then head back to Colorado.

"I don't have roots here," she said. "You go in there and you take it to the next level and then you pass the torch to the next person."

She did say it "hurts me down to where my heart is" that some may think she has overlooked abuse. "I take it very, very seriously. I have my own children," she said. "I would never want a child to be harmed."

On the drive from the gate to the administration building, Zahasky pointed out the school's dog kennel, where offenders train dogs as part of therapy. And the chapel. And the school.

"The school's real nice inside," she said. "It's nicer than most out in the community."

The Times would have to take her word for it. She kept driving.

Reporters were barred from talking to kids at Dozier, even though that access has been allowed in the past for stories on more positive subjects.

After the interview, the officials and the reporters went outside. "This shouldn't be about me," Zahasky said. "This should be about the kids."

A group of about a dozen boys marched past about 50 yards away. They wore tan jumpsuits and held their hands behind their backs. They all stared at the visitors as they marched.

"Let's go," Zahasky said, hustling the reporters into the van. "Let's go."

She said something about protecting their identities. And about having to explain to them who the visitors were.

One of the boys waved.

"I'm feeling real uncomfortable," she said.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Florida juvenile justice officials tout changes at Dozier School for Boys, but don't show them 10/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 7:27am]

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