Palm Beach Post Editorial
Thursday, May 01, 2008
Whatever parents might have agreed to regarding treatment at Victory Forge Military Academy, a Port St. Lucie boot camp-style boarding school for boys, the state is correct to offer a second opinion.
A city police officer saw a 16-year-old runaway from the school shackled in chains. Police notified the Florida Department of Children and Families, which asked parents to pick up their sons. The school remains closed while the agency investigates, which a spokeswoman said could take until early June.
Since 2000, city police have visited Victory Forge to check on three complaints of child abuse, one complaint of sexual activity between students and at least 12 runaways. An investigation in 2004 found no truth in allegations that the staff severely beat a boy. Detectives praised the academy staff for hospitalizing the boy despite his parents' objections. The boy had early-stage kidney failure, which doctors said could have been caused by dehydration and rigorous exercise.
Victory Forge's board president and commander, Alan Weierman, acknowledged that the school uses shackles. He said the school follows Florida Department of Juvenile Justice restraint policies. School officials remove the restraints if a student agrees not to run away again. Also, parents are told when they register their sons that the academy uses restraints on runaways.
As a spokesman noted, however, DJJ is not a school; it deals with young criminals. Victory Forge is a nonprofit registered as a private military academy, operating on donations and charging $28,600 for a one-year residential treatment program. Its "tough love" approach emphasizes structure, military-style discipline, physical training and "behavioral redirection."
When the Port St. Lucie officer saw the 16-year-old runaway in restraints, the school commander said, "No one knew if it was legal ... or if it was child abuse." Mr. Weierman complains that the state wants to shut down his school by removing the students. But Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder, who ran a successful boot camp until lack of state money forced it to close, said that his operation did not routinely use shackles. "We'd have to have violence before we'd do anything like that ... If you're trying to encourage kids in the right direction, to overuse (shackles) could drive them in the opposite direction."
Anyone who has children can empathize with desperate parents. But the state has a responsibility to see that schools like Victory Forge deliver what they promise to relieve that desperation.
The Colonel has allegedly removed one of his employees who physically abused the cadets. What we need to ask is if that is enough or does the program need to take responsibility and come clean. The editorial is a worthwhile read although no new information is offered.