By ANA X. CERON and TERESA LANE
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 25, 2008
PORT ST. LUCIE — The Department of Children and Families told parents of boys at a boot camp-type boarding school to remove them this week after police found one of the boys shackled, according to the school's leader.
Victory Forge Military Academy's board president and school commander, Alan Weierman, acknowledged Friday that the school uses shackles to restrain runaways and that an investigation was launched when a Port St. Lucie police officer saw a 16-year-old runaway being restrained.
"No one knew if it was legal ... or if it was child abuse," Weierman said.
Weierman said the school follows the same restraining procedures used by the Department of Juvenile Justice.
The restraints, Weierman said, are removed as soon as the student requests it and agrees not to run away again. Typically that lasts from two to 24 hours, Weierman said.
But the Port St. Lucie teen was shackled on and off for 10 days, sometimes wearing only steel ankle shackles and at others wearing wrist and ankle restraints, Weierman said. The restraints were removed when the boy showered, attended class and during other periods.
The teen's mother knew that he was being shackled and approved of it, Weierman said.
"She called us every day to see how her son was doing," he said.
Weierman did not reveal the woman's name and she could not be reached for comment.
Weierman said police contacted DCF on April 7. The school notifies police when one of its students runs away, Weierman said.
DCF officials have contacted parents about an abuse allegation, spokeswoman Ellen Higineotham said, but she would not reveal what it involved because DCF's investigation was not complete. Higineotham also said officials had suggested parents pick up the students within 24 hours. If parents left a child at the facility, Higineotham said the agency would find a safe place for him, including temporary shelter with relatives or, if needed, state custody. As of early Friday evening, three of the school's 16 students remained.
Port St. Lucie police spokesman Robert Vega confirmed the department is investigating an abuse allegation but couldn't say whether it involved the use of shackles.
Weierman explained that he kept shackling the teen, who had run away before, because the teen showed potential for success and he wanted the boy to change his mind on his own.
The school head now believes that DCF wants to shut down the school by removing the students.
Higineotham said the agency's investigation is expected to be complete about the first week of June.
If the agency deems that the use of the shackles is abuse, Weierman said he would appeal the decision. He said the restraints were necessary to keep the boys - many of whom come to the school because of behavioral problems or because they have been involved with crime - from the streets, where they could land in trouble.
Parents are told that the school restrains runaways when they register their child, Weierman said.
Andrew Banks, whose 15-year-old has been in the school for 15 months, praised the school for changing his son for the better and said he would approve of placing him under shackles if he ran away.
"I understand how those kids are; defiance is a nice word for it," he said.
Police have responded to three complaints of child abuse, one complaint of sexual activity between students and at least 12 runaways from Victory Forge since 2000, records show.
While Detective Teresa Dennis was investigating claims that staff had severely beaten a boy in July 2004 - claims that later were unfounded - Dennis said parents of other recruits began calling for information, saying they had been told by DCF investigators that their children were in danger.
Dennis and another detective interviewed 19 boys at the academy in 2004, and each said the alleged victim fell on purpose and forced himself to throw up.
In her report, Dennis praised Weierman and staff member Travis Plummer, saying their insistence on taking the boy to a hospital despite his mother's reluctance to have him leave the boot camp may have saved his life. Doctors later diagnosed him with early-stage kidney failure they said could have been caused by rigorous exercise and dehydration.
Although the boy claimed he was denied adequate food and water, others testified that wasn't true.
Victory Forge is a nonprofit organization, taking donations and charging $28,600 for a one-year, residential treatment program.
Weierman concedes his methods are unorthodox, but claims success with more than 97 percent of his recruits.
Before Weierman converted the program to an all-boys military academy, it was a shelter for victims of child abuse and neglect. Weierman was charged with failing to report child abuse and obstructing justice in 1989 when the former director of the facility - then called Victory Children's Home - was arrested on charges he molested three girls at the home. Charges against Weierman and the former director, Ken Beck, were dismissed a few months later.
1. Are all parents told when their kids are shackled? The answer is a resounding NO. Kids were shackled without knowledge of several parents.
2. Have there been other charges made against the Col and others in the school? The answer is yes. More details will follow.
3. Why did the students then claim that Victory Forge has done nothing wrong? The answer is one word - FEAR. The cadets fear reprisal from the Colonel and his staff if word got out that they were telling people the truth. We are looking for former cadets of the school who would be willing to tell us the truth.