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Suit alleges former Dozier school abused three boys

They changed the name, pushed out the superintendent, reduced the population of young prisoners, retrained the staff and fired employees caught sleeping on the job.

The changes at the state's oldest reform school — the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, now known as the North Florida Youth Development Center — seemed to be helping, as the school passed its most recent inspection.

But a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court Friday claims kids are still being abused and mistreated at the notorious Department of Juvenile Justice program in rural Marianna, now in its 111th year of operation.

The suit, filed by Florida Institutional Legal Services on behalf of three clients incarcerated at the school, alleges kids with mental illness and developmental disabilities are placed in isolation for days or weeks as punishment and are denied appropriate mental health treatment.

"The people of Florida should be outraged that we are being told by state officials that these young people are receiving treatment and rehabilitation," said attorney Andrea Costello. "Putting kids with mental illness into isolation for days is not rehabilitative treatment."

Costello began investigating the school after a series of articles in St. Petersburg Times in 2009 exposed ongoing abuse and neglect behind the chain-link and razor-wire perimeter. Her clients, a 17-year-old and two 18-year-olds diagnosed with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, report being left in arm and leg restraints for up to an hour. They say they were placed in solitary confinement, which is a stark room with only a slab with a mattress and sheet, and were not given mental health treatment when they tried to harm themselves or talked about suicide, a manifestation of their mental illnesses.

When the youths are in isolation, they're not allowed to go to school, recreation, vocational programming or counseling, the suit says.

If the boys are considered a suicide risk, they must wear a bright yellow jumpsuit and pull their bare mattress outside the doorway of their rooms to sleep, the suit says. The boys say they are harassed by other boys, who sometimes throw things at them. If the boy tries to hurt himself, he is placed in the medical area in his underwear, sometimes with a plastic suit — called a "turtle suit — that covers only part of the front and back of his body.

The lawsuit says boys often lie about their mental state, saying they aren't having hallucinations or suicidal thoughts, to avoid the ridicule.

The suit describes the clients as deeply disturbed. One was a victim of sexual abuse and witnessed a shooting. One stabbed himself down the throat with a pencil twice and stabbed himself in the arm with a piece of a desk. One ate rocks.

"They're not getting appropriate mental health treatment," said Costello. "These kids are engaging in acts of self injury because of their mental illness. Instead of get ting treatment they're being put in extended suicide risk observation. It's humiliating for those children."

The suit also alleges one boy was punished because he refused to tell administrators what he had discussed with his attorney.

"I was speaking with one of our clients," Costello explained. "We left the facility and when we came back he told us he had been placed in isolation for not telling the facility administrator what we had talked about."

Department of Juvenile Justice spokesman Frank Penela said the department hadn't seen the suit until it was passed along Monday by a reporter.

"We have not yet been served with this," he said. "However, we take any allegation against the department seriously and will look into the allegations."

The suit doesn't seek monetary damages outside of attorneys' fees.

"We want to see these policies and procedures changed," Costello said. "We want to see the use of isolation ended at this facility. We want to see these kids provided with appropriate mental health treatment."

The school has been the site of extreme human suffering for most of a century. In 1903, investigators found children locked in irons. In 1914, six boys burned to death trapped inside a flaming dormitory. In the 1940s, '50s and '60s boys were beaten bloody with a thick leather strap in a building called the White House. In the late 1980s, a class-action lawsuit forced the state to stop hog-tying kids and leaving them in solitary confinement for weeks.

The school was threatened with closure last year, as lawmakers looked for ways to trim the department's budget. But department officials promised change.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

>>In Tallahassee

Claims bill filed
to compensate men

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has filed a claims bill seeking compensation from the state for men who were abused at Florida reform schools in Marianna and Okeechobee in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. The bill is before a special master on claims bills, who will decide whether to forward it to leaders in the House and Senate to be heard during the coming legislative session.

Fasano said he was moved to present the bill after reading newspaper accounts of the physical and sexual abuse the men endured while in state custody and how that trauma shaped their lives.

"You read this stuff and you can't believe this happened in America," Fasano said. "Their story needs to be told and they need to be compensated for what they went through."

Suit alleges former Dozier school abused three boys 02/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 2:38pm]

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