November 28, 2014

Juvenile Justice

The Music Man

Anthony Schembri is changing Juvenile Justice's tune.

Neil Skene | 9/1/2004
Standing in front of a crowd of reporters, but slightly behind his still-new secretary of Juvenile Justice, Jeb Bush was trying to suppress a smile. They are a sort of Schwarzenegger and DeVito -- the tall, good-looking, Texas-born governor and the rounder, shorter, older cop from Brooklyn.

The secretary, Anthony Schembri, was telling the reporters about "yutes' rights." He said it again: Yutes'. Bush allowed himself a little smile. Schembri heard about it later and laughed. "He pulls my leg on that. I try not to say 'youths' around him."

Bush has tagged Schembri to fix the Department of Juvenile Justice, which has endured grand jury reports, indictments of two DJJ nurses, newspaper disclosures of hundreds of abuse cases over the past decade and the departure under fire of its secretary, two top deputies and 18 others. But Schembri is not just fixing the agency. He's also trying to curtail Florida's affection for hard-line approaches to juvenile crime.

That may take a little attitude adjustment from the governor himself. "The governor has heard a full-throated defense from me about where I think we should be," Schembri says. He says he told Bush during his job interview, "A good friend tells you when you've got bad breath." But he adds, "I dig the guy. We dig each other. That's important."

State Rep. Gus Barreiro calls Schembri "the Energizer bunny." A Republican from Miami Beach, Barreiro led a crusading legislative investigation of the department. "The biggest problem the department had overall was its culture of callousness toward kids," he says. "We were solely in the business of protecting society by locking up kids. With Schembri, we're all going to be in the business of rehabilitation."

Storyteller
Schembri is the sort of character who can actually create substantial change, even in a government town where reformers regularly come and go. Schembri, who gained some notoriety in investigating a homicide while he was police chief in Rye, N.Y., was the inspiration for a TV show called "The Commish," which aired from 1991 to 1995. It was about an unorthodox Brooklyn police commissioner who got results. The show was produced by Stephen J. Cannell, the force behind "The Rockford Files," "The A-Team" and a dozen other shows. To kick off the scriptwriting, Schembri says, he and some detectives from his days with the Brooklyn district attorney sat around with Cannell "and told stories till 6 in the morning."

Telling stories is Schembri's modus operandi. They aren't just police thrillers. They are about leadership and people and decision-making. "It's a powerful way of getting your message across," he says.

Soon after then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani made him the corrections commissioner in New York City in 1994, he says, he got a petition from officers at Rikers Island prison complaining about sewage coming into their locker room. "I say, 'How long's it been going on?' 'Five or six years.' ... 'OK,' I say, 'I'll take care of it tonight.' All the eyes dart around. At midnight that night, I had the warden's office transferred to the locker room."

Schembri pauses. "He fixed it in three days," new floors and everything. "I'm not telling him how to run a jail. I'm telling him how to treat people."

It's a recurring theme. Early on, Schembri invited DJJ's clerks and secretaries to a reception. "In this agency you are one of the most important people we have here," he told them. "What you're really doing is affecting the lives of kids."

A new culture
Schembri wrote a little management book, full of stories, called "Leadership for the Soul: Thank God It's Monday." "Bosses are the difference," he says. "Your vision of what you're doing has to be so compelling that people want to jump on your bus."

DJJ could use that kind of boost. It has been enduring all kinds of fallout since 17-year-old Omar Paisley died June 9, 2003, from an untreated ruptured appendix while in DJJ custody. "It's been stressful," says DJJ legislative analyst Lucy Mohs, tapped to run a new Office of Continuing Improvements. "The general rank and file responsible for delivering the services on a regular basis have been blasted or forgotten about."

Schembri, who was teaching at the University of Central Florida before his appointment on June 1, moved quickly. By mid-July he had rearranged the top leadership, made two key hires, fired four people for misconduct, banned the use of painful restraints like shoulder locks, created a process for almost immediate reporting of problems and established a "youth rights policy" focused on respectful, responsible behavior from agency personnel. Research, along with training, now reports directly to him because he wants to "do what works" and to stop putting money on things that don't.

Former DJJ Secretary Bill Bankhead and his deputies, rather than Bush, are taking the hit for the past. "The governor received a lot of information that was incorrect," says Barreiro. "It took a long time for the governor to see that resources weren't being put in the right places." Roy Miller, president of the Children's Coalition advocacy group, says Bush was "badly advised." For them, focusing on drug treatment, mental health, dysfunctional families and other problems is far more effective than incarceration at turning kids around. But Schembri downplays policy differences. "I think the soft side of the governor is juvenile delinquency," he says.

Schembri's challenge is to turn initial enthusiasm into a new culture for the whole organization. "I'm out there at 3 o'clock in the morning," he says. "I walk into jails; I eat with the detainees on Saturdays and Sundays; I talk to the officers."

The unimaginable
Some of Schembri's stories seem, well, dramatized. A couple of them are in fact old jokes. And the biography in his book has a grandiose description of his prior role as "commissioner, Florida Corrections Commission." It says he "recommends major correctional policies for the governor's approval and assures that they are properly executed, recommends improvements to the governor and the legislature ... evaluates the budget request ... evaluates the efficiency, productivity, and a management of the department." It doesn't say he was one of nine commission members who meet about once a month without pay.

Maybe inside him is a little bit of the Music Man, the Broadway traveling salesman who co-opts his skeptics and touts an unorthodox "think system" for learning music. The Music Man is redeemed, though, because he has changed the townspeople for the better. The school board quits fighting and becomes a barbershop quartet, the kids give up pool-playing for trombones, and the town truant is leading the band. The part that's fake is less important than achieving the unimaginable.

Leadership, after all, is really a performing art, coupled with judgment and wisdom. Changing what people expect of themselves turns beleaguered organizations into effective ones, turns cynical guards into role models and turns bureaucrats who've been berated and ignored into people who make a difference.

Tags: Politics & Law, North Central, Education

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