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Investigation continuing after riot at youth facility


Published:   |   Updated: August 20, 2013 at 11:09 AM

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AVON PARK - Juvenile justice authorities may reconsider a rule that prevented employees of a private company from using pepper spray during a riot at Avon Park Youth Academy that resulted in heavy damage to 18 of 20 buildings on the campus.

Meghan Speakes Collins, director of communications for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, said an investigation that continued Monday into the riot will look at ways to more effectively respond to such a situation or to prevent one.

The academy will not be taking in more juveniles for the time being. They will be sent to other facilities, she said.

"Right now, the focus is on the youth we have there now," she said.

Of the 140 academy residents as of Saturday, 71 were being housed at the Polk County Sheriff's Office's South County Jail in Frostproof, one remained at Florida Hospital with a broken leg and 68 remain at the Polk County academy.

The juvenile had a broken leg after he was run over by a golf cart, driven by another minor, the Polk County Sheriff's Office said Monday.

Another suffered a concussion after he was hit in the head by a fire extinguisher, authorities added.

Any charges against the juveniles will be filed later this week, said Carrie Eleazer, public information officer for the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

Authorities said the riot stemmed from a bet between two opposing basketball teams regarding a match Saturday night.

Those from the opposing team, from St. Petersburg, refused to honor the bet by giving the winning team from Orlando three "Cup O' Noodles" soups.

After that, fighting broke out and significant damage was done to 18 of 20 buildings; fires were set in a dumpster and a records office, authorities said.

Collins said the buildings are concrete, so there were no structural damages. However, juveniles broke many of the windows and created a big mess in many of the buildings, she said.

Since the two undamaged buildings, including the cafeteria, contain open rooms, there's enough area to temporarily house the 71 juveniles, she said.

But as the mess is cleaned up and repairs are made, the sleeping arrangements should return closer to normal, she said.

The facility handles male juvenile offenders who pose a moderate risk, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice's web site.

Collins said a variety of factors, such as the offense they committed and whether they are repeat offenders, are used to determine who presents a moderate risk.

A private firm, G4S manages the facility. G4S employees do not carry weapons and are not permitted to use pepper spray.

Collins said one part of the analysis on how to improve response could be whether changing that rule would be beneficial.

Although some online commentators on articles have argued the conditions are too liberal at the facility and that it's like a country club, Collins said, the academy is not a prison.

"These are kids who are not going to be locked up for the rest of their lives," Collins said, adding they typically only spend about a year at the facility. The aim of the program is to give them vocational experience and that increases the chances they won't re-offend, she said.

"We want them to have the skills they need to be employable," she said.

jmeisel@highlandstoday.com

(863) 386-5834

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