DCF has investigated 35 child-abuse claims at Victory Forge Military Academy
By Keona Gardner (Contact), Will Greenlee Saturday, June 14, 2008
ST. LUCIE COUNTY — Since 1994, the state Department of Children and Families investigated 35 prior child abuse allegations against Victory Forge Military Academy, according to an investigative summary released late Friday afternoon.
At the request of a lawyer for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers and the Palm Beach Post, Circuit Judge Ben Bryan made public a 12-page summary of DCF investigations of child abuse at Victory Forge Military Academy, a private school for troubled teenage boys. The final summary redacted the names of children mentioned in the summary and some details of incidents.
Earlier this week, DCF announced it had completed its most recent investigation into the school and had “serious concerns about the safety and welfare of children” at the facility. DCF investigators asked parents in late April to remove their children from the school while they looked into a child abuse claim involving a student who ran away in shackles.
However, a police investigation and review by state prosecutors that concluded this week found no criminal activity at Victory Forge.
Col. Alan Weierman, the academy’s commanding officer, could not be reached for comment late Friday. He earlier said the academy did nothing wrong and said three students have since returned to the school, with more than two dozen parents sending applications for enrollment after the incident became public.
Victory Forge attorney Robert Stone opposed making the DCF investigative summary public to protect the privacy of students.
“We’re putting out a report about children who are not here to be heard,” Stone said about Victory Forge students, who were not in the courtroom Friday. Bryan ultimately disagreed, but he declined to rule Friday on whether the underlying incident reports should be made public. He instead allowed for the newspapers to request a second hearing on the matter.
On Friday, the Port St. Lucie Police Department also released more than 100 pages of police records it accumulated in the case, which led to detectives finding there was no criminal activity at the facility. DCF and PSLPD police began investigating Victory Forge after a student ran away April 6 and was found hours later in shackles at St. Lucie West Middle School.
The child “appeared very upset and on the verge of tears,” a report said. “Please take me to jail, I don’t want to go back,” the boy is quoted as saying.
The Victory Forge student said he’d been beaten and choked by employees, forced to eat “stuff” — a combination of vegetables, barbecue sauce and spices — and shackled for nearly two weeks. Weierman denied the abuse to police and described the “stuff” as “healthy food that just tastes bad,” according to the DCF summary.
Assistant State Attorney Jeff Hendriks said in a memo released Tuesday even though a student was in shackles for about 12 days “there is nothing that rises to the level of criminal activity at this point.”
Victory Forge has adopted state Department of Juvenile Justice policies in terms of restraining juveniles, using restraints to “secure juveniles that pose a threat of running away” as opposed to using them as punishment. While Victory Forge violated the Department of Juvenile Justice shackling policies, it wasn’t a criminal matter, Hendriks wrote.
Although nothing criminal was found, DCF officials said they still had serious concerns, according to the summary.
“This case will be closed with verified findings of threatened harm, mental injury, physical injury, bizarre punishment and asphyxiation,” the summary said. “This facility is registered with the Department of Education but is privately run.”
According to the summary, Victory Forge staff “engaged in physical discipline that is harmful to children, such as choking to unconsciousness, punching, kicking, banging heads into walls and cabinets.”
The summary listed the names of 18 students, whose names were redacted to protect their privacy, who in 2004 DCF officials found had “some indicators of physical injury.”
DCF also noted staff at the academy, who are not related to Weierman, had a “pattern” of leaving the facility during an investigation.
For example, DCF officials used a private investigator to find staff member Justin Reaves, who then told DCF officials he left because of the DCF investigation. Although he told DCF he felt abuse was occurring, he denied all abuse claims made against him and would not specify any responsible party.
Tuition is about $28,000 a year and parents are given a contract and manual describing possible discipline, according to Hendrik’s memo. According to the summary, many parents said Weierman “misrepresented the practices of his facility.”
Weierman has previously said the academy tries to instill discipline in teenage boys and instructs them that if they run, they will be shackled.
“There is no abuse here. It’s a tough program. It’s made to be tough,” Weierman said in a past interview.
Make the report public!! If there is nothing to hide, why is Stone confusing the issue with lame comments. Weierman, make the documents public, and let the people decide for themselves.