Everyone agrees, it started as a joke.
Then came the million-dollar question: Does anybody else want some wall-to-wall therapy?
Then the firing.
A detainee and a staffer were playing, bantering back and forth in the Zone Q day room on the afternoon of May 4, 2012, at the now-closed Riverside Academy in Tampa.
Soon, the words grew hostile and the two tangled.
The boy, witnesses said, was taunting a staffer in Panther Dorm who was new to the job. A veteran worker took him into another room to talk to him about disrespecting the rookie. What happened next is a matter of dispute. One youth said he slammed the boy against the walls, an administrative review said. Others claimed he was hitting the walls “to give the impression he was throwing the youth against the walls.”
Either way, most of the witnesses said the older staffer emerged from the room and asked the other boys, “Does anyone else want some wall-to-wall therapy?” He later denied saying that.
Video surveillance shows two boys then stood up and moved toward the worker, as if calling his bluff. One, an 18-year-old who was close with the youth who’d just had the real-or-imagined “therapy,” pushed and grabbed the worker around his waist. They tussled and ended up on the floor.
The rookie staffer who had been teased jumped in. The boy was restrained. He claimed the senior worker kicked him while the new staffer held him down.
A third staff member told investigators that she heard the ruckus and saw the youth and two workers tangled up on the floor. She saw the older worker’s foot go up, as if to kick the youth, and rushed over, declaring: “No, you can’t do that.”
“Everything just got crazy, real fast,” she told investigators.
The investigation concluded that the 18-year-old had actively resisted, which led to the restraint. An unnecessary force allegation was ruled inconclusive. The veteran worker was cited for violating policy by threatening youths with the unorthodox therapy, which “resulted in the escalation of the incident,” according to the report. He was fired on May 11, 2012.
As one youth described it: “It started as playful on both sides, then it went bad.”
This narrative is part of Tales from the Front, a collection of short stories about Florida's juvenile justice system. The Miami Herald investigated the state's youth corrections system following the 2015 beating death of a Miami-Dade detainee. Read the full "Fight Club" investigative series here.