Disturbance at Palmetto Youth Academy started because boys refused to go to bed

A reported melee at the Palmetto Youth Academy last month in which scores of delinquent youths threw chairs and tried to break in to an adjacent dorm began, deputies said, with a universal adolescent ritual: the boys refused to go to bed.

It ended about 20 minutes later with a very grownup reaction. Dozens of deputies from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office retook the facility, and sent the youths to their rooms.

Although Florida Department of Juvenile Justice claims no altercation occurred, the agency says it is investigating how the private company contracted to run the residential program handled the incident.

At about 10 p.m. on Sept. 4, staff at the facility called in the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, according to a DJJ incident report. Details in the DJJ report were provided by staff with TrueCore Behavioral Solutions, the Tampa-based for-profit company that is contracted by DJJ to run the facility.

But the sheriff’s office incident report — which includes an affidavit from the TrueCore staffer who called 911 — paints a different picture of what happened at the residential program which is located inside the Manatee County jail complex and houses high-risk juveniles between the ages of 14 and 21 who have a primary diagnosis of substance abuse and/or mental health disorders.

Deputies say they reported to the facility with “lights and sirens” after receiving a report of a disturbance involving 43 juveniles who “were throwing chairs and breaking windows.”

The Palmetto Youth Academy, a Florida Department of Juvenile Justice residential program, houses high-risk boys between the ages of 14 and 21 who have a primary diagnosis of substance abuse and/or co-occurring mental health disorder and is located on the Manatee County jail’s campus. TrueCore Behavioral Solutions is contracted by the department to run the program. Jessica De Leon jdeleon@bradenton.com

“The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice is currently investigating the recent disturbance at Palmetto Youth Academy to determine whether proper policies and procedures were followed by the contracted provider staff,” DJJ Secretary Simone Marstiller in a statement emailed to the Bradenton Herald. “DJJ appreciates the quick response of law enforcement in helping to resolve this incident.”

Video surveillance footage from inside Palmetto Youth Academy obtained by the Bradenton Herald as a result of a public record’s request does show juveniles from one of the facility’s three housing units pushing past a TrueCore staffer. The footage also shows the arrival of dozens of deputies and their taking control of two of the boys.

One of the boys had to be handcuffed by deputies before being escorted back to his room.

Bedtime at the facility is 9 p.m., but the video footage, which does not have audio and was redacted, or intentionally blurred, to protect the confidentiality of juveniles, only provides a glimpse into what happened in the hour before the sheriff’s office was called. Only four clips were released, one showing the scene shortly after bedtime in one dayroom, two showing the scene a hallway where the boys burst out into and a fourth showing another dayroom when deputies arrived.

An affidavit provided to the sheriff’s office by one TrueCore staff at Palmetto Youth Academy makes clear what led him to call 911.

The staffer claimed that all the boys were “unsecured and unruly” when he arrived for his shift. Then when another staffer opened the door from the hallway into one of the dorm’s dayrooms, the boys tried to breach another one of the dorms by “trying to break the windows with chairs.”

“The TrueCore staff was greatly outnumbered so I proceeded to call 911 for assistance,” the staff member wrote. “Youth complied when officers from the sheriff’s department showed up.”

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Jessica De Leon has been covering crime, courts and law enforcement for the Bradenton Herald since 2013. She has won numerous awards for her coverage including the Florida Press Club’s Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting in 2016 for her coverage into the death of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas.