Local News

Juvenile justice head pleased at repairs, cleanup to youth facility

AVON PARK - Less than five days after a riot at the Avon Park Youth Academy, few outward signs remained of the event or the damage Tuesday as Florida Department of Juvenile Justice officials toured the facility. Wansley Walters, secretary of the department, said she was pleased at the recovery effort and that it appears the original damage estimate of 18 of 20 buildings being destroyed overstated the situation. "It was not what I expected to find," Walters said. "I'm grateful and relieved at that." Although relieved at the damage situation, Walters indicated that a lengthy investigation into the causes of the incident and such how rampages can be prevented has begun.
Walters said one part of the investigation is what led to a period of time when staff at the academy were not supervising the youth. She said that appeared to have happened during part of the time when the riot was occurring. That does not comply with standards in place at youth facilities, she said. Walters said that Tuesday was the first day since the riot when she and her staff had access to the facility. Referring to the media, Walters said, "Some of the questions you're asking are the same questions we're asking." Authorities said the rioting began last Saturday after a basketball game between youth from Orlando and St. Petersburg. That situation stemmed from St. Petersburg youth failing to honor a bet calling for the losing team to give the winners three containers of Cup Soup. In the aftermath, 68 youth remained at the facility and they helped in the cleanup, Walters said. Seventy-one youth were sent to a building at Polk County's South County jail. Walters said some of those youth may return to Avon Park facility, which is in Polk County, as of today. "We're going to start the process tomorrow (Wednesday," said Jim Hill, president of G4S Youth Services, the company hired to operate the facility. In looking at how the facility would seek to prevent or respond to future incidents, Walters appeared to rule out providing pepper spray or any other weapon to staff at the facility. She said the industry standard is for employees not to be armed with pepper spray, tasers or other weapons. She noted that as far as she knows no incident of such a magnitude has ever occurred at such a state youth facility. Avon Park Youth Academy is not designed as a prison, she said. Its aim is to rehabilitate youth through teaching them vocational skills, she added. And the magnitude of the situation was less than previously thought, she said. Hill estimated that only 14 of the 20 buildings sustained some damage. Nine of those 14 buildings needed extensive repairs, he said. Most of the work involved replacing windows, and that was largely completed as of Tuesday. The interiors of buildings were in far different shape than depicted in photos released by the Polk County Sheriff's Office of the situation soon after the riot. Hill said the medical building received some of the heaviest interior damage when youth turned over refrigerators and spilled medicines. "Everything was completely in shambles," he said. But Meghan Speakes Collins, director of communications, said red stains on the floor in the original photos did not come from real blood, but from a substance used for training. After touring the medical facility, Walters received a briefing from the Polk County Sheriff's Office. Walters said she asked that the media be allowed to be at the briefing, but the Sheriff's Office disagreed. jmeisel@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5834