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  1. Hernando

State investigating after two more teens escape from Brooksville juvenile justice facility

BROOKSVILLE — The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice is conducting an escape review and investigating security procedures after two more teens escaped from a Brooksville juvenile justice facility, bringing the total to four escapes in less than 30 days.

The most recent escape happened Saturday at the Center for Success and Independence - Brooksville Academy off Culbreath Road south of Brooksville, when a 17-year-old and 15-year-old ran away. They were outside for recreation time, a Hernando County Sheriff's office spokesperson said, and went into the nearby forest before facility staffers could stop them.

The pair returned about eight hours later on their own, according to the Sheriff's Office.

They were arrested and transported to the Hernando County jail. The 17-year-old originally faced charges of possession intent to sell a controlled substance. The 15-year-old faced charges of battery, criminal mischief and violation of probation.

On June 25 , a 16-year-old and 15-year-old fled the facility while walking from the cafeteria to their dormitories. The pair was found and arrested on new charges of grand theft auto three days later in Martin County.

"We recognize that the community has concerns," said Juvenile Justice spokesperson Amanda Slama. "We are responsible for public safety, as well. We hold our contract providers accountable if we find failures."

Day-to-day operations in the facility are contracted to Youth Opportunity Investments, a private organization based in Carmel, Ind., that manages juvenile facilities nationwide. It operates four non-secure Florida facilities.

The Brooksville center houses up to 60 males ages 13 to 18, according to the Juvenile Justice website. It is intended for offenders who pose a low or moderate risk to public safety and have been accused of crimes such as theft or burglary. Still, the site says, they require close supervision.

There is no fence around the Brooksville facility, Slama said, but the dorms, cafeteria and other buildings are locked and prevent the young men from leaving. When moving from building to building, staffers escort them, and recreation time is supervised.

"We place the security of the community of high priority for all of our decisions," said Youth Opportunity Investments chief legal officer Gary Sallee. "We believe we're the best in the industry."

The Sheriff's Office has not received reports of violence by escaped teens, Sheriff Al Nienhuis said in a statement.

"Since the juveniles housed there are often from other parts of the state, it stands to reason that the juveniles who escape are more concerned with getting out of the area than anything else," he said.

The Brooksville Academy is not the only Youth Opportunity Investments facility that has had recent escapes. Three teens were arrested July 5 after they fled the Mansfield Juvenile Treatment Center in Mansfield, Ark., according to reporting in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Youth Opportunity Investments took over the facility as a part of an Arkansas state contract to privatize its juvenile justice system, according to the Democrat-Gazette.

The Brooksville center was run by Eckerd Connects before Youth Opportunity Investments took over in September 2018.

The school within the Brooksville facility has been run by the Hernando County School District since December, but ultimately the Department of Juvenile Justice is responsible for overseeing the facility's security procedures, School District spokesperson Karen Jordan said.

"The limits of our responsibility are to educate those students," Jordan said.

She said she hopes the state will implement procedures to prevent another escape.