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    Academy taking steps to keep girls safe

    In the wake of sexual battery charges, a juvenile facility will try to keep workers from being alone with female residents.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000


    LARGO -- A Largo facility that houses juvenile offenders said Friday it will attempt to prevent employees from being alone with female residents after one worker was arrested earlier this week on charges he had sex with a 16-year-old girl in a bathroom on the grounds.

    The Florida Youth Academy will have one of its top officials at the facility at all times, said its executive director, John Cheney. The center also is working with supervisors to make sure that male workers are not alone with female residents, he said.

    One worker, Freddie Crayton, 43, of Largo, was charged Wednesday with sexual battery after a 16-year-old girl said they had consensual sex. Police are investigating similar allegations made by three other young women against Crayton, according to Largo police. One of those cases will be reviewed next week by the state attorney's office, police said Friday.

    Crayton is being held at the Pinellas County Jail in lieu of $100,000 bail.

    The academy works with youths up to 18 years old who have gotten in trouble with the law. The youths are referred to the academy by the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Their stay can last anywhere from six months to a year.

    The five-building facility at 12895 Seminole Blvd. was purchased from Charter Behavioral Health Systems in September by Devyani Desai, who had been a mental health consultant for Charter.

    Cheney stressed Friday that the academy is a safe place. He said the facility got a safety rating of "superior" from the state earlier this year. The academy has a "zero tolerance" policy against the sort of behavior Crayton has been charged with, Cheney said.

    "It's something we're taking very seriously and something we are going to ensure doesn't happen again," he said.

    The academy has 146 employees and 132 beds for its youths. State and local criminal background checks are done on all employees, officials said.

    State officials said Friday they think the allegations against Crayton amount to an isolated incident.

    "The program has taken the appropriate actions," said Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Catherine Arnold.

    Arnold said the agency has not received any calls from parents concerned about the safety of their children. After the young woman came forward to academy officials, supervisors there contacted every parent with a child at the center and told them of the allegations, Cheney said. The academy also interviewed every resident and asked whether they had any improper contact with Crayton.

    Crayton also is a bus driver for the Pinellas County School Board.

    The academy looks for its employees at area colleges or through newspaper advertisements, Cheney said.

    Mark Fountaine, executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, a group of residential juvenile justice facilities, said it is difficult to find and keep good employees at these types of centers.

    Fountaine said although the vast majority of people who work at such facilities are problem-free, it is inevitable that a few will act inappropriately.

    "Unfortunately, in our industry, as with any other industry, you have staff who make inappropriate decisions," he said. "You have to have little tolerance for that type of behavior."

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