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Dozier School superintendent Mary Zahasky steps down

MARIANNA — Mary Zahasky, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys' sixth superintendent in eight years, stepped down as the head of the troubled high-risk facility.

In a performance evaluation Thursday, Zahasky was blamed for failing to control the reform school, which has been scandalized by a series of institutional failures. The evaluation criticizes Zahasky for not being visible to the boys and staff, not addressing safety and security lapses and not identifying issues "before they are known to outsiders."

Dozier has been under scrutiny since last October, when a group of men confined there in the 1950s and '60s came forward with stories of bloody whippings and filed suit. The St. Petersburg Times profiled the men in a series called For Their Own Good. The Times has also documented recent cases of abuse, neglect and improper supervision resulting in bloody noses and broken bones.

In October, Times reporters visited Dozier, where Zahasky said the school was improving under her leadership.

But that same day, administrators launched a review of closed-circuit video on campus and found six staffers falsifying documents. Those six, according to disciplinary reports obtained by the Times, did not do head counts of the inmates every 10 minutes, as required. But they filled out paperwork suggesting they had.

Two employees admitted it. One said he fell asleep, a recurring problem at Dozier.

Those two probationary employees were fired. Department of Juvenile Justice lawyers are reviewing the discipline for the other four.

Zahasky's evaluation cites "significant safety and security issues" and says the school must reduce physical restraints, youth grievances and staff turnover.

During much of 2008, Dozier had four nurses when it should have had nine. Boys complained of medical neglect and mistreatment. In the past two years, documents show, the school has employed drug users, drinkers, a man who broke his wife's shoulder and a number of people with criminal histories.

Zahasky's sudden retreat surprised DJJ officials. Neither Secretary Frank Peterman nor spokesman Frank Penela would say why Zahasky stepped down.

"That's a personal decision that she made, not that we made for her," Penela said. Zahasky will remain employed by the department. Officials said they would disclose her new position next week.

Reached by phone Friday morning, Zahasky directed questions to headquarters. She replied to the evaluation in writing: "Due to the Dept. feels I am unable to do this job and has lost faith in me, has left me recognizing I need to step down with Residential."

Zahasky, 55, was hired as superintendent in 2007. She has been replaced by James Godwin, who was superintendent at the adjacent Jackson Juvenile Offender Correctional Center.

Zahasky told the Times in October that she wanted to stay for a few more years. "When I came here, I knew that there were problems," Zahasky said. "And you feel like, oh my gosh! Do I really want to do this? It certainly needed some changing."

Several other changes have been ordered at Dozier in the past few months. The population is being reduced from 135 boys to 105, and the school has closed two of its residential cottages.

Employees have been told that Dozier scored poorly on a recent annual evaluation and may be placed on "conditional status" for the second year in a row. That report, conducted by DJJ, has not been made public. "Conditional status" means a program is subject to more intense scrutiny and must make changes within six months.

Acting on rumors, state NAACP leaders held a town hall meeting in Marianna on Monday to organize against the possible closure of the school. Leaders said they opposed child abuse, but wanted to save the jobs the school provides.

Peterman said closing Dozier is not in the department's plans.

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.

Coming Sunday

The Dead at Dozier: 31 crosses mark the school cemetery. But where are the other 50 dead boys?

For complete coverage of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, go to magazine.tampabay.com.

Dozier School superintendent Mary Zahasky steps down 12/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2014 12:09pm]
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