By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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The bespectacled guard, identified by DJJ as 23-year-old Alvin Speights, shuffled past a bolted-down steel table one of three then stopped. Before him stood a scrawny, five-foot-eight-inch blond youth. The boy was an eighteen-year-old former Pembroke Pines resident named Justin Caldwell.
Without warning the guard lunged at Justin, grabbed him by the throat, kicked his legs out from under him, and dropped the boy onto his back. After calling over a second guard whom DJJ officials declined to name Speights flipped Justin onto his stomach and straddled him.
Three security cameras at the residential facility in Marianna, 66 miles northwest of Tallahassee, captured the incident without sound. Off-camera, says Justin's father, Mark Caldwell, who spoke with his son shortly after the incident, the guards repeatedly bashed the boy's forehead on the concrete floor. Then they pulled him to his feet, and he collapsed head-first onto one of the steel tables. "Justin told them he felt dizzy," Mark Caldwell says. "He passed out on his feet."
The guards then dragged the teenager's limp body, his head gushing blood, to the center of the room, where they left him for more than 30 minutes.
On April 13, DJJ Secretary Walt McNeil announced that Speights and the school's acting superintendent, John Tallon, had been fired for violating department policy. An internal investigation into the incident revealed no evidence Justin provoked the guard. McNeil also told reporters that "systematic operational problems" at the facility spanned "the chain of command from top to bottom." DJJ even temporarily halted school admissions. A probe is now underway to determine if Speights will face criminal charges.
Justin's case marks the first announcement of abuse at a Florida DJJ facility since Gov. Charlie Christ appointed McNeil this past January. It has been a serious test for the former Tallahassee police chief, who took over the department after the fatal beating of fourteen-year-old Martin Lee Anderson at a Bay County juvenile boot camp. Eight employees of the boot camp have been charged with aggravated manslaughter and the place has been closed.
Dozier may be worse. Records show between January 2004 and March 2007 the Department of Children and Families, the government agency that logs calls made to the Marianna school's incident telephone hotline, received 133 complaints. Of those, DCF verified five, according to DCF spokesperson Al Zimmerman. All occurred in 2006. Among them:
On January 23 a boy of unknown age alleged twenty-year-old staffer Andrew Menchion assaulted him. Doctors at Jackson County Hospital confirmed the child suffered a nasal fracture and displacement. Menchion, who said the boy was combative and hit his nose, was "removed from client contact." The case was assigned to the DJJ's Inspector General's office, and Melchion was terminated on February 10.
On March 9, a boy whose age was not divulged in the Intensive Supervision Program (ISP), a form of solitary confinement, alleged 23-year-old staffer Kendrick White choked and hit him during an argument. Documents reveal the boy "had scratches on his chest and received first aid treatment." White was fired on March 10.
On July 5, a seventeen-year-old diabetic boy alleged guard William Page left him lying on the floor of a television room while he was suffering from low blood sugar levels. The boy called for help, but didn't receive any for about twenty minutes. DJJ officials filed a medical neglect report and fired Page on August 2.
On August 3, school medical staff examined a sixteen-year-old boy with "bruises all over [his] face and arms." He also suffered "a blackened eye, a bruised lip, a big bruise on his forehead, and scratches on his neck, shoulder, and arms." The incident, documents show, was not caught on videotape, and the youth "refused to give any details."
On August 29 DJJ received an anonymous complaint alleging 29-year-old Sheretha Paramore, a teacher's aid, was having sex with a fifteen-year-old student. On November 17, police arrested Paramore; her employer, the Washington school district, placed her on paid leave. She awaits trial.
Justin's case, though, is the one that finally caused the school's superintendent to lose his job. According to the boy's father and public records, the then-twelve-year-old was discovered by his stepmother "messing with" his five-year-old stepsister in 2002. "I was at work at the time," Mark Caldwell laments. "If I had been home, things would probably have been handled differently." Justin was charged with lewd and lascivious acts on a minor. Shortly thereafter the boy was sentenced to a twelve- to fifteen-month stint at the Elaine Gordon Treatment Center, a DJJ facility in Pembroke Pines.
Quarterly reviews showed Justin had "low self-esteem and depressive thinking" and was "easily bored, stressed, and frustrated." A negative review, behavioral problems, or an unwillingness to participate in activities earned him more time. "They kept sending me all these papers saying his release date was set back," Caldwell scoffs, "saying he hadn't shown enough progress. It's ridiculous and I kept telling them, 'I want my son home.'"
When the Pembroke Pines school closed in 2005, Justin was transferred to Dozier. That facility which resembles a maximum-security prison with electronic doors at every turn and razor wire surrounding the fences was created in 1900, and today houses approximately 162 juvenile offenders ranging from fourteen to 21 years old. An estimated 200 employees work there.
This past February 2, Justin celebrated his eighteenth birthday, his fifth behind bars. A few days later, he claims, an unnamed staff member held him by the back of his shirt and pushed him into a metal pole. His head was split open and doctors at a Jackson County Emergency Room closed the gash by placing metal staples in his forehead. "Staff said he fell," Caldwell barks.
"Since he's been at Dozier, he said he's made at least 25 calls to the complaint line," says Caldwell's attorney, Rick Reno. "Twice they were investigated. One time he was literally laughed at; the other time nothing was done."
On February 11, DJJ records show some twelve hours before Speights allegedly beat Justin unconscious the teenager was in a crowded dining hall where a staffer named James Wooden was distributing utensils. In a complaint filed a day later, Wooden states Justin elbowed and head-butted him without provocation. Fearing a riot, Wooden alleged he and two other staffers then restrained the boy until he calmed down.
DJJ investigators concluded Justin had committed battery on a staff member. Two days after the videotaped incident, Marianna police arrested the teenager and charged him with battery on a detention staff member a third-degree felony. Police then transported him to Jackson County Correctional Institution. His trial is set for June 19. If he is found guilty he could face up to five years in prison.
But it didn't end there. Investigators also spoke with an unnamed juvenile at the facility who said: "[Justin] accidentally bumped into Wooden then Wooden slapped [Justin] in the head where his staples were Wooden then slammed [him] on the floor slamming his head into the floor once Wooden got up [he] went back to [Justin] and kicked him several times on the ground."
It's unclear whether this incident had any effect on McNeil's decision to fire Dozier's director. In any case, Justin remains in custody. "He's in adult jail on false charges," Mark Caldwell rants. "They did it on purpose to retaliate against my son for speaking out against them and all the stuff that goes on in there. I want him home, now!"