Assess boot camps; Teen's death calls for juvenile detention study
OPINION:, February 24, 2006

The grainy video of a Bay County youth's fatal introduction to juvenile boot camp that is available on the Internet does not prove he was beaten to death by guards. It does, however, show an appalling indifference to an obvious medical crisis that doubtless contributed to his death.

The death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson on Jan. 6 at the boot camp in Panama City is being cited as a reason to close this form of juvenile incarceration that originated 11 years ago in Manatee County. That is a leap to a conclusion that the facts do not justify.

Anderson died hours after collapsing during a physical exercise regimen that law enforcement officials say is a routine introduction to the boot camp experience. A 35-minute excerpt of the 80-minute video of the incident reviewed by The Herald shows the youth repeatedly collapsing while six to eight guards hover around him. At least 13 times the youth attempts to rise, sometimes with officers' help, but each time he falls back to the ground. Some who have seen the full video say it shows the deputies kneeing and punching Anderson, but we could not clearly see what the officers were doing while the youth was prone.

During much of the incident, a nurse is present. Several times she bends over the youth and at least twice puts what appears to be a stethoscope to his chest. But the attempts to keep the boy walking continue until his legs splay out akimbo and he slumps to the ground yet again. Eventually, two paramedics arrive and put the boy on a gurney for a trip to the hospital, where he died a few hours later. Last week, a medical examiner attributed the death not to physical trauma but to internal bleeding caused by sickle cell trait, a blood disorder not previously diagnosed.

One camp closing

That finding itself has caused controversy, with some experts saying they have never seen such a reaction to sickle cell and others saying it is a rare but not unique condition. Relatives and some politicians insist that the internal bleeding was caused by the beating, with the boy's mother insisting he was "murdered" by the guards.

Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen this week said he will close down the boot camp when the current class finishes its sentence in two weeks. That is a wise decision pending completion of the official investigation into Anderson's death. However, it does not justify calls by grieving relatives and a few grandstanding politicians to shut down the boot camp system altogether. Indeed, unless evidence shows that physical abuse is a systemic pattern of the camps, this should be treated as an isolated incident for which the guards and nurse should be held accountable. The question we have is why they waited so long to realize the boy was in a medical crisis.

Manatee Sheriff Charlie Wells, who initiated the boot camp concept with Circuit Judge Durand Adams in the mid-'90s, says the images from this video belie what really goes on in boot camps. Of a recidivism rate above 50 percent, Wells asks: What other juvenile detention programs have better results? He cites the educational and socialization benefits of the camps, saying many youths labeled learning-disabled advance four to five grades academically in the camp's charter school during a six-month stay.

Medical screening faulty?

A certain degree of roughness is necessary in the intake phase to get the attention of rebellious teens who are not used to following orders from anyone, Wells said. It does not include punching or kicking, he said, but there is lots of in-your-face confrontation and physical activity, including military-type drill, to force the inmates to comply with authority. Sometimes uncooperative youths fake illness to escape the laps and marching, Wells suggested.

If this was the case with Anderson, the guards - and nurse - went too far. Long before an hour of struggle it should have been obvious something was wrong with the boy and medical attention provided. Better medical screening of boot camp prospects might have detected Anderson's condition before he was subjected to vigorous exercise.

To his credit, Department of Juvenile Justice Chief Anthony Schembri included closer medical screening in a package of reforms aimed at preventing a repeat of Anderson's death. Schembri also ordered new, uniform policies on how far guards can go with inmates, especially in the intake phase, and called for better training of guards. This should be enough to keep the remaining four camps open until a thorough analysis of their value is completed. Before legislators scrap the boot camp system, they should commission a study of all juvenile justice programs to see which are most effective. Boot camp may not work for all, but is a 40 to 50 percent success rate any worse than other detention programs?

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Boot camp for kids: Torturing teens for fun and profit
Martin Lee Anderson: A life cut short
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