The Withlacoochee STOP Camp, a juvenile offender program tucked away in the forest on the east end of Hernando County, has closed because of state budget cuts, forcing 18 employees to find new jobs.
The camp, in the Richloam Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest, was a 20-bed minimum-security facility where low-risk boys, assigned by the court, were housed and schooled for stays that typically lasted about three months. Most were nonviolent offenders from other parts of the state.
The camp, which school officials say began in 1978 with just a few Quonset huts, grew to include a main office, a cafeteria, several permanent sleeping quarters and a classroom with Internet access.
The state Department of Juvenile Justice, responding to deep budget cuts imposed by the Legislature following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, cut more than $4.8-million from its residential facilities, said Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Diane Hirth.
The Withlacoochee STOP Camp, with its budget of nearly $643,000, was one of those cut. It was allowed to remain open until the end of June, when its youthful residents were reassigned. Hirth said it is possible the camp could reopen under private management, though she gave no time frame.
The camp's closure meant that 16 Juvenile Justice employees were thrown out of work. Two moved into vacant jobs within the agency; the rest were let go. They are being helped with job retraining and placement services by the agency, Hirth said.
"It's not like the Legislature or the department wanted to make these changes in the sense that we like to shut down programs," Hirth said. "But we and other agencies had to make a lot of sacrifices."
The Hernando school district had a teacher and a teacher's aide assigned to the camp, said student services director Jim Knight. He said those two workers may be able to find other jobs within the school district. But the school district didn't learn about the camp's closing until June.
The district spent about $70,000 a year at the camp, Knight said. Aside from the two staffers, the district provided weekly visits from a counselor.
John Shepherd, who oversaw the school district's efforts, said classes there had to meet the same standards as other schools in the state. "I think they are good to keep having and that the Department of Juvenile Justice will do what it can to keep them open."
_ Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.