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Crime & Courts

Riot sparked by basketball bet heavily damages Polk juvenile center


Published:   |   Updated: August 19, 2013 at 03:31 PM

Three Cup O’ Noodle soup servings were at the heart of a riot that destroyed 18 buildings, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage at a Polk County juvenile detention facility Saturday night.

The melee needed 150 law enforcement officers from several state and local agencies to quell. Seven juveniles were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment of minor injuries.

Polk County sheriff’s deputies said 18 of the 20 buildings at the Avon Park Youth Academy were destroyed and nearly half the juveniles had to be taken to a jail. Rioters confiscated a guard’s radio and all of the staff golf carts and set fire to a building containing the teens’ records and a trash bin, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office said.

The riot started about 8:30 p.m. after a fight on a basketball court. A team of five juveniles from St. Petersburg was playing a team of five from Orlando and had wagered three Cup O’ Noodles soups on the outcome. The losing team, from St. Petersburg, refused to pay and the two teams started fighting. Juveniles who weren’t playing joined in, deputies said.

The 911 call was received at 8:34 p.m. and the first Polk deputy was on the scene at 8:58 p.m., the sheriff’s office said.

Staff are forbidden from using specialty equipment, including pepper spray, which would have allowed them to deal with the fight before it escalated, authorities said.

The security company called 911 and sheriff’s deputies arrived to form a perimeter around the facility, assisted by officers from three state agencies and other emergency responders, including SWAT team, K-9 units and air support.

Every juvenile in the riot area was secured and handcuffed before being removed, deputies said. Amanda Tyson, an employee of G4S, injured her knee when she fell trying to break up a fight. No law enforcement officers were injured.

Seven youths were taken to Florida Hospital in Sebring with minor injuries, the most serious of which was a broken leg. The broken leg was sustained when the juvenile was driven over by another juvenile driving a golf cart, the sheriff’s office said.

Other injuries included bruises, lacerations and one concussion, suffered when he was hit in the head by a fire extinguisher.

The youth were injured while fighting, breaking glass, being hit by flying objects or rammed by golf carts, said Carrie Eleazer. spokeswoman for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

No one was injured while being taken into custody, Eleazer said.

During the riot, none of the juveniles escaped from the secured compound.

Sixty-four juveniles were removed from the academy and taken to the sheriff’s South County Jail in Frostproof, where they were being kept in a location away from the adult inmates.

The rest remained at the academy, deputies said.

Damage to the academy was extensive, with all but two of the buildings destroyed, deputies said.

Deputies plan to file charges against those juveniles who participated in the riot. Some could face multiple felony counts.

There are no security cameras at the facility, so authorities don’t have surveillance video of the riots.

Avon Park Youth Academy is a 144-bed, moderate-risk program for males in the juvenile justice system between the ages of 16 and 19 years old. It’s a non-secure facility, meaning youth are not confined to their rooms during the day. They are allowed to move about without handcuffs or shackles for activities, while accompanied by staff at all times. Teens are taught job skills and receive mental health and substance abuse treatment, according to a spokeswoman from the Department of Juvenile Justice.

The Department of Juvenile Justice contracts with the private company G4S to provide security guards and staff.

“Once law enforcement officials have completed their investigation, DJJ will conduct a thorough internal review to enhance safeguards that provide for the safety of youth and staff in Florida’s juvenile justice facilities,” DJJ spokeswoman Meghan Speakes Collins said in a statement.

She said this was the first incident of this magnitude at the facility.

The facility has three shifts, with the night shift having the lowest staff-to-juvenile ratio. DJJ officials said 21 employees were at the facility when the riot started.

The agencies responding to the scene were the Polk, Highlands, Osceola sheriff’s offices; Sebring police; Florida Highway Patrol; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; Department of Corrections; Polk Fire and EMS; and the state Fire Marshal’s Office to the list of agencies who responded to the riot on Saturday night in Avon Park.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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