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Camp rules allowed force

In 2004, state officials promised to use less force at juvenile facilities. But those rules never applied to Florida's boot camps.

By ALEX LEARY and CURTIS KRUEGER
Published February 25, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - A month into his job, Anthony Schembri already was making a splash.

The new head of Florida's juvenile justice agency ceremoniously declared the end of aggressive force toward children in state facilities.

"You can't teach compassion by modeling callousness, and you can't teach respect for the law if you are showing disrespect," Schembri said in the summer of 2004.

Unnoticed, however, was that Schembri's reforms did not apply to workers at juvenile boot camps.

Now, with the camps thrust into the spotlight, some question if the exemption cost a 14-year-old boy his life.

"When you have a policy to protect kids it has to go across the board," said Rep. Gus Barreiro, R-Miami Beach, who has become a leading boot camp critic since last month's death of Martin Lee Anderson in a Panama City, Fla., boot camp.

The death came after Anderson was pushed, punched and kneed by a half-dozen drill instructors and is the subject of a criminal investigation. It has also triggered policy changes that could ban the use of force at boot camps.

Critics say that means juvenile justice officials are now doing what Schembri did not do two years ago.

"What do you say to (Martin's) mother? Now we understand it wasn't a good idea not to apply that policy to everyone?" Barreiro said. "Sorry doesn't cut it. He'll never come home."

Schembri, the brash-talking New Yorker who was the model for the TV show The Commish, declined to be interviewed for this story.

A spokeswoman said Friday that he did not include boot camps in the Youth Rights Policy because boot camps have a different philosophy toward rehabilitation than other juvenile programs.

"It's not like one size fits all," Cynthia Lorenzo said. Schembri, she said, knew local sheriffs operated the boot camps and their staff had "superior training" to that of other juvenile justice personnel.

But that training provides greater latitude for the type of tactics used on Martin Anderson.

"They've created a culture that is susceptible to abuse," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a former federal prosecutor.

Gelber said that even within the boot camps there are different standards of force. "With what we have now, I'm not sure what the limits are," he said.

* * *

Critics say the differing standards reflect the clout of Florida's sheriffs.

"Schembri doesn't want to offend the good old boy network, the guys that believe that bashing a kid's face into a wall works. Sheriffs have huge leverage," said Clearwater activist Cathy Corry.

"The sad reality is the multitude of kids who are abused or neglected and the public doesn't know about it because they didn't die," said Corry, who runs www.justice4kids.org. a Web site critical of the Juvenile Justice Department.

Lorenzo could not say Friday whether Schembri spoke to sheriffs about the policy change in 2004.

Whatever the case, he was not breaking tradition. Sheriff's offices have been permitted more leeway since youth boot camps began in Florida in 1993.

Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells, who opened the first boot camp, said the in-your-face tactics were seen as integral.

"It's a control factor ... The boot camp would fall flat on its face without that initial intake," he said.

Wells pointed out that Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and fellow Democrats controlled state government at the time and the concept was "unilaterally accepted."

The Department of Juvenile Justice did not exist then; the former Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services oversaw boot camps. The thinking at the time was sheriffs' employees were already subject to extensive training and did not need what HRS could offer, Lorenzo and others said.

Those regulations come under the state's Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, a longstanding panel that governs law enforcement.

Most boot camp employees are trained under the defensive tactics component, which in 624 pages spells out how to take down subjects and apply some of the very moves - hammerlocks, shoulderlocks and pressure points - barred in other juvenile facilities. Those facilities, which include wilderness camps and standard juvenile detention facilities, follow the more restrictive Protective Action Response policy.

"Too many youth have been injured in incidents with these techniques," Schembri said in 2004. "While these holds may be appropriate for an adult population, experience has shown us that it is too easy to injure a young person when applying these holds. Physical restraint should be applied only to prevent a youth from hurting himself or others."

His memo disclosing those reforms did not mention that boot camps were not affected.

* * *

The omission potentially affected scores of youths, including Sean Matthew Lewen of Pinellas Park, who went through the Bay County boot camp last year.

Lewen said he was sent to the camp after he faced charges of battery, burglary and violation of probation.

The 18-year-old told the St. Petersburg Times a drill instructor held down his thumb and pushed on a pressure point - the underside of his wrist. "It hurt," he said. "It made me shut up."

Although staff members at boot camps, jails and other institutions generally are trained in ways to restrain unruly inmates, Lewen said drill instructors in Bay County used some of these methods make inmates comply.

"If they saw we were doing anything wrong, that's when they hurt us," Lewen said.

One day, he said, he was sitting in the boot camp classroom when a drill instructor told him to put his things under his desk.

When he said he already had, the drill instructor pulled him out of his chair and called in on his radio a "signal 93" for "insolence," Lewen said. That brought another drill instructor into the classroom.

Lewen said he was squirming as the drill instructor pulled his hands behind his back, and "that's when he started to pull my thumb back and pressure point me."

Lewen said the drill instructors took him outside to a dirt field and had him do a "low crawl" through the dirt. He said he also was told to do sprints across the field and that he was given a dustpan and told to "paint the dirt," by smoothing it all out. He said he was then told to fill two buckets with dirt and sprint across the field carrying them.

Lewen said he saw drill instructors using the wrist pressure point technique on youths about a dozen times during his six months in the boot camp.

"That's what they call pain compliance," Lewen said.

Lorenzo, the juvenile justice spokeswoman, said state confidentially rules did not allow her to confirm if Lewen was an inmate at a state boot camp. However, she said: "Any allegation of abuse is taken very seriously by our agency. They are throughly investigated, and if substantiated further action is taken to the full extent."

Lewen said he received a high school diploma in boot camp. But half a year later, he said he is still angry about the experience.

"It filled my heart with hate, that's it," he said.

* * *

Chris Caballero, second in command at the Department of Juvenile Justice, said it is too early to tell if the Bay County boot camp guards exceeded the more lenient standards in the Anderson case.

But juvenile justice officials already have taken steps to create a more uniform policy. A tentative list of changes that surfaced this week bar use of pain compliance at boot camps.

Some could see that as an acknowledgement that past practices fell short of the principles Schembri extolled two years ago.

"Hindsight is always 20/20," Caballero said. "It's like when an accident happens at an intersection without a red light. The first thing everybody usually does is call for a red light."

[Last modified February 25, 2006, 01:37:13]


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