Two months after a Florida judge ordered the state to open files on abuse complaints at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, the school's superintendent has abruptly resigned. The opportunity to replace Mary Zahasky — the school's sixth leader in eight years — provides Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman with the best opportunity yet to ensure that the institution's disgraceful legacy is not extended. If there are not immediate improvements and more transparency about the sins of the past, the former St. Petersburg legislator needs to shut down the Marianna facility.
Zahasky stepped down this month after an evaluation of her previous six months on the job showed seven areas that needed improvement, from "significant safety and security issues" to increasing her presence among students. She was told she needed to develop plans to reduce the use of physical restraints, staff turnover and student complaints. Her only public comment about stepping down was written on the evaluation: "Due to the Dept. feels I am unable to do this job and has lost faith in me . . ."
The evaluation undercuts the image that department officials and Zahasky tried to project for the past year. They have repeatedly deflected public inquiries and questions, saying the institution's current operations are nothing like the facility it had grown from, the Florida School for Boys. Dozier has been under a spotlight since October 2008, when a group of men who were confined there in the 1950s and '60s filed a lawsuit claiming heinous abuse. That sparked national media attention and an investigation by the St. Petersburg Times that has uncovered evidence of mysterious deaths or abuse in nearly every decade of the institution's existence.
Most relevant for today: Records obtained by the Times two months ago following a judge's order that their release was in the public interest show the state's oldest reform school continued to stumble under Zahasky's watch. Guards were caught falsifying records and failed to supervise showers, allowing a sexual offender to perform oral sex on two other students. Two guards were fired for physically abusing students. And just last year, the school's nurses repeatedly warned that students were medically neglected because five of the clinic's nine nursing positions were empty.
Dozier's problems aren't limited to the boys incarcerated there. As Times' reporters Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore have chronicled, the real cost of Dozier's failings is ultimately borne by society when boys leave more troubled than when they arrived. Dozier wasn't a place for rehabilitation, as public policy would dictate. It was a place that broke them. One snapshot of that legacy: Of 180 boys housed at Dozier in 1988, 97 percent, after leaving, were arrested for crimes ranging from murder and sexual assault to armed robbery and domestic assault.
It's time for Peterman, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Legislature to answer for what is now Dozier. The state needs to immediately rehabilitate the operation or shut it down — not just for the boys while they are there but for the rest of society that will live with them when they leave.