By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Gainesville State School Superintendent Darryl Anderson and his campus find themselves in a happy place this fall.
Anderson visited Austin in August to attend the TJJD Board meeting, where we heard that Gainesville State School, which currently serves about 140 youths, is close to fully staffed with Juvenile Correctional Officers. That wasn’t the case – for hardly any facility -- coming out of the COVID years with their challenging quarantines and volatile schedules, followed by the period of the "great resignation" in 2021-22 that stretched employers everywhere, including TJJD.
Today, though, the numbers at the Gainesville campus, tell a story of recovery. The just-enacted five percent raises for state employees and JCOs (who also got a bump in 2022) undoubtedly helped. This was backed by a mighty team effort by HR recruiters and staff who promoted the campus, improving retention as well as recruitment.
Meanwhile, campus leaders have striven to build a positive culture marked by respect, collaboration, and communication. And at the center of this invigorated campus vibe, adding bonhomie and direction is Anderson, a leader who exudes calm, models respect, and knows how to empower his team.
“He problem-solves a lot,” says Assistant Superintendent Michelle Washington Hawkins. “If there’s a problem, he’s open to all solutions. He’ll let the staff create our own culture. It’s so positive and uplifting.”
Anderson arrived at Gainesville in the fall of 2019 after a two-year stint as assistant superintendent at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood. He immediately sought out community leaders to address what he discerned was a brewing disaffection toward the campus.
“We had to reestablish ties with the local community,” he said, after some employees who’d been terminated were painting an inaccurate picture of the state school operations. “We met with the mayor, the county judge, the chief of police, the county commissioners. We introduced ourselves and said we had a new administration. They were very receptive and said themselves that this facility is a cornerstone of the community.”
Anderson’s next step was to set a good tone and reach out to everyone on campus, something that Washington Hawkins says appears to come naturally to him. He touches base with everyone on campus regularly, from dorm staff to treatment teams to educators at the school, she said. He does not lead from his office, but strolls the campus, praising the good things he sees and making himself available to help with difficulties.
“He is very firm and fair and consistent in what he does. He has a lot of experience behind him, and you can tell,” she said.
Family Enrichment Specialist Stephen Claybrook echoed Washington Hawkins' assessment, saying Anderson's greatest attribute is his consistent approach to staff and unwavering commitment to the agency, which inspires the staff to want to stick with their work helping youth and their families.
"He is a leader by nature," said Claybrook, who previously worked as a chaplain at TDCJ. "I have worked under many wardens and administrators and I rank him up there with a few of the best."
Community Resources Coordinator Kevin Hill sees Anderson as the glue that keeps the Gainesville team together. "What impresses me the most is that he is a man of the people. Mr. Anderson takes time to know all of the staff and youth at GNS. His job is very demanding, yet he never turns down an opportunity to visit or participate in campus activities." And he apologizes for those events he has to miss.
Anderson's democratic approach seems key to the loyalty he instills. Hill recalled a recent day he was trying to safely move volunteers to a campus event. "I recognized that the Superintendent golf cart would be a great alternative for transport," he said. "I felt like I was asking my dad to borrow the car for a Saturday night date! Mr. Anderson loaned me the cart without any hesitation."
A winning combo of education and experience
A Nacogdoches native, Anderson went to college at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia where he lettered in football, though he completed his degrees at Texas A&M University – Commerce (a master’s in counseling education) and Huston-Tillotson University in Austin (a bachelor’s in physical education).
He boasts three decades of corrections and residential care experience, working with adults and youth in various settings. He was a client care specialist at Promise House in Dallas, supporting activities to help youth reduce stress and build life skills, and served as director of the Austin Transitional Center, a 420-bed facility for justice-involved adults needing substance abuse treatment.
Earlier in his career, he served as a Sr. Warden for several Texas correctional facilities, ranging from minimum to maximum security and up to 1,200 beds. These included the North Texas Intermediate Sanction Facility, Kyle Correctional Center, Lockhart Work Program, and the Willacy County State Jail. Before that, he was a Deputy Warden at the Travis County State Jail and Kyle Correctional Center.
Anderson worked outside of Texas briefly at mid-career -- as a Sr. Warden at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility and as Assistant Facility Administrator at the Florida Civil Commitment Facility for sexually violent predators, a unique 600+ bed facility where he developed expertise in administering the PREA law.
He returned to the classroom to teach criminal justice classes at Remington College and the University of Texas at Austin, and he maintained his Red Cross certification for First Aid and CPR.
Education is a big part of his family’s life. His wife, Denise, teaches education counseling at Texas A&M. Their daughter went to medical school and became a gynecologist. Their oldest son is a computer programmer, and their youngest son is a junior in high school at Gainesville. (Darryl and Denise also have four grandchildren, the latest one, Felicity, was born Sept. 10.)
Anderson himself is a lifelong learner, having honed managerial skills and an engaged leadership style that helped him transition smoothly from adult corrections to the juvenile side.
It’s been a great move, he says, reflecting on how he so often heard adult prisoners say they wished someone had intervened in their life when they were younger and showed them better options.
Now that’s what Darryl Anderson and his team are committed to doing, helping TJJD youth find their North Star, a positive, productive path forward through the treatment, education, and life skills they learn at Gainesville State School. Anderson knows how to inspire youth and staff, says Washington Hawkins. “He teaches, he molds, and he believes in the mission statement,” she said.
“Darryl has done a tremendous job promoting trauma informed correction care at Gainesville,” said Alan Michel, Sr. Director of State Facility Operations. “Under his leadership Gainesville is demonstrating a positive campus culture which is reflected in higher numbers of employed staff, a safer campus and effective treatment.”
A campus on the upswing
The campus has not had a serious disruption to programming – a period in which staffing shortfalls require that youth stay in their rooms part of the day – in over a year. And HR stats show that staff retention has improved.
The campus does still have a few open slots for JCOs, but that's because it has added beds and expanded the numbers of the youth in residence. It also recently launched a canine program, and trained staff especially for that dorm. The campus is now so well staffed that it contributes to a small travelling team that can help at other TJJD campuses when they experience a staffing shortfall.
Another factor that helped lift the campus, is that Anderson assembled a strong leadership team, says Washington Hawkins. Anderson demurs on that, however, saying he “inherited” a strong team because the campus had so many experienced staff ready for leadership roles.
Furthermore, Anderson says, the campus feels embraced by the community and draws on a wide labor pool that extends from just north of Gainesville, into Oklahoma, and sweeps in Sherman, Denison, Denton, and the northern D/FW metroplex. Anderson says they staff members commuting from all those communities.
“We are sitting in a very centrally located area. We compete with the sheriffs’ departments in Denton and Dallas. But we have had the raises and that has made us competitive,” he said. “We’re at the point where we can be selective in hiring.”
That’s a great milestone to reach because corrections work is not for everyone. It takes the right person – someone who’s quick-thinking, collaborative, and compassionate with a strong motivation to help others and serve public safety -- to be successful in the field.
When the job is a good fit, juvenile corrections can be highly rewarding because direct care staff play such a vital role in helping turn young lives around.
“Our kids, they test us daily,” Anderson says with a chuckle, “and staff can be challenging at times too!”
The job requires that employees be disciplined, remain calm in the face of provocations, and keep flexible because new scenarios arise all the time, Anderson explained.
Staff must also devote themselves totally to the work while on duty. “They have to leave personal issues at the gate and for 12 hours, they have to flip the switch and turn off their personal life and the emotions that they’re going through,” Anderson said. “They have to come in and focus and keep their radar up, because every day is different.”
“This place is never going to be on remote control. You’re going to have problems and you must have a plan for how you’ll handle it and not panic,” he said. “And you learn from every situation you go into.”
(Photos: Top, Anderson with TJJD Board Chair Scott Matthew; Lower left, Anderson presents an appreciation award to Gainsville State School staffer Ryan Mayfield; Anderson grabs a treat for Baxter, a dog in the canine program at the campus.)