Free Justin!

Despite well-documented injustice, a Pembroke Pines youth remains in jail

On February 11, shortly before 6 p.m., a heavy-set African-American man clad in a Department of Juvenile Justice-issue black-and-gray uniform wandered through a near-deserted common room at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the Florida Panhandle.

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 young man was an 18-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 him 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 young man's forehead on the concrete floor. Then they pulled him to his feet, and he collapsed headfirst 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 that Justin had 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 under way 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 14-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 that 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 that 20-year-old staffer Andrew Menchion assaulted him. Doctors at Jackson County Hospital confirmed that 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, but DJJ officials could not confirm what, if any, disciplinary action was taken against the guard.

On March 9, a boy — whose age was not divulged — in the Intensive Supervision Program (ISP), a form of solitary confinement, alleged that 23-year-old staffer Kendrick White choked and hit him during an argument. Documents reveal that the boy "had scratches on his chest and received first aid treatment." White was also removed "from client contact," according to DJJ, which offered no further details.

On July 5, a 17-year-old diabetic boy alleged that 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 20 minutes. DJJ officials filed a medical neglect report but again offered no further information on the incident.

On August 3, school medical staff examined a 16-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 that 29-year-old Sheretha Paramore, a teacher's aide, was having sex with a 15-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 firings. According to his father and public records, the then-12-year-old was discovered by his stepmother "messing with" his 5-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 youth was sentenced to a 12- to 15-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. '"

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