Former youth academy staff members arrested for child abuse, neglect

AVON PARK, Fla. -- Three former Highlands Youth Academy staff members were arrested after a years-long investigation found criminal misconduct and abuse toward juveniles while they were administrators. 

"It is an absolute, unequivocal train wreck," Sheriff Grady Judd, who has criticized the facility in the past, said.

Norma Wynn, 56, of Sebring, Jose Sanchez, 63, of Sebring and Johnny Hart, 40, of Okaloosa County face several charges including tampering with evidence and failing to report child abuse/neglect, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. 

In 2013, a riot broke out at the Highlands Youth Academy, which was called the Avon Park Youth Academy at the time. Juvenile inmates broke windows and trashed the facility over a game of basketball and a cup of ramen noodles. Judd said they caused about $350,000 in damage.

A couple of years later, the Polk County Sheriff's Office released video of employees trying to break up a fight. While they're preoccupied, another teenager is seen escaping.

In November 2015, detectives received tips regarding alleged wrongdoing and criminal activity occurring at Highlands Youth Academy, which is a Department of Juvenile Justice non-secure residential program, that wasn't being reported, according to the sheriff’s office.  

The sheriff’s office reports the allegations included sexual activity between staff and residents and juvenile residents battering staff members without action being taken by administration.

"If we could list all of the allegations, you would go, 'oh my gosh,'" Judd explained.

Detectives said they were able to determine all three of those arrested intentionally destroyed or tampered with evidence, failed to report child abuse, and willfully neglected juveniles under their care.

In June of 2015 a grand jury in Polk County found the youth academy "in its current state is a disgrace and should cease to exist."

The Department of Juvenile Justice did not shut down the facility and continued to employ G4S, a private company, to operate the facility. Judd has railed against the Department of Juvenile Justice and G4S for years.

"G4S owes the taxpayers of the state of Florida a rebate, and they owe apologies to the kids," Judd said Friday.

G4S declined to comment Friday afternoon. 10News also reached out to the Department of Juvenile Justice, but has not heard back yet.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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