Local News

Riot investigation finds fault with youth academy staff; leads to changes

AVON PARK - A riot last year at Avon Park Youth Academy has led to officials reducing the juvenile population at the facility, installation of surveillance cameras, improving training, increasing the staff to youth ratio and planning efforts to improve relationships with law enforcement.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice announced those changes in a press release after the Inspector General's Office investigative report faulted staff and administrators at the academy for a flawed response to the riot and criticized planning for a such an event and the apparent lack of training for staff.

During the riot that began during a basketball competition with youth from other facilities, youth broke windows, set fires and caused other damage. At one point, the report says, staff members were told to do nothing - apparently because of the inability to control the situation - despite that as many as 20 youth had ganged up on one youth, the report says.

Of the 140 residents at the time, 71 were arrested and taken to the Polk County Jail.

In response to the report, the department has done the following, according to the press release:

Reduced the program size from 144 to 80 beds.

Plans to increase staff/youth ratio from one staff member to 10 youth to one staff member to three youths during the day and from one staff member to 12 youths to one staff member to five youths at night.

Plans to conduct drills with law enforcement members.

Plans to install surveillance cameras throughout the facility.

There was also talk immediately after the riots about the staff members having the ability to use pepper spray, but the press release said that would violate state law and could cause more problems than it would solve.

The investigation determined that former Community Administrator Uriah Harris and current Assistant Community Administrator Jocquas Walker "failed to ensure the safety and security of program youth," the report aid.

It also found that former administrator Garrett "Pete" Zeegers failed to ensure the safety and security of program youth by "not having an effective riot and major disturbance plan and failing to properly train staff."

Concerns raised by the report include "the lack of specific curriculum to be included in the required training in riot and major disturbances, as it pertains to staff response," and "the lack of required annual training and evaluation of staff in responding to riots and major disturbances."

The report noted that the riot began when youths from St. Petersburg and Orlando got into a fight, which escalated and resulted in other youths getting involved.

It was initially reported "that the confrontation was due to a wager over a basketball game; however, this was never confirmed," the report said.

Questions were raised also about how the staff reacted to the situation.

At one point, the report said, Walker told the staff to disengage from the fighting youths, return to their units and let law enforcement deal with the situation.

Walker told the investigators that "there were enough staff to maintain safety and security in a normal situation, but not in this situation."

In the incident where multiple youths were assaulting another youth, Walker was asked whether he left the youth to the mob and replied, "I guess you could say that," the report said. "He claimed he did try, but could not successfully help the youth."

Walker also told the investigators that he was unaware of any plan at the facility on how to respond to such a riot.


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