Boot camps reborn

Published September 10, 2006

The boys were the first recruits to a juvenile delinquent academy debuted by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office on Saturday.

- The new program uses less confrontational techniques than traditional juvenile boot camps. Gone are the military-like commands and marching drills.

- The Sheriff's Training and Respect, or STAR, Weekend Program is a scaled-down version of a boot camp. It is available to troubled children between the ages of 7 and 17.

- Its goal is to prevent at-risk kids from becoming criminals.

"This is an opportunity to get involved with the kids before they get involved with the criminal justice system," said Sheriff Jim Coats. "We're here to tell them there are expectations for being law-abiding citizens.

"There are consequences if you're not."

Unlike in traditional boot camps, the children have not been convicted of crimes in most cases.

Of the five children there on Saturday, most of them had prior problems with anger, respect and poor grades. At least two of them had suffered some previous abuse. One 10-year-old had been in a group home because of his defiant behavior.

The Sheriff's Office said the 8-year-old tried to suffocate his 5-year-old brother and punched his pregnant mother, and the 15-year-old frequently skipped school and was verbally abusive.

Located at the county's shuttered boot camp facility at 14500 49th St. N in Clearwater, the program is free and open to Pinellas County children, girls and boys. Parents or guardians must participate.

Up to 25 children spend one Saturday at STAR, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. They wear the jumpsuits, get fingerprinted and photographed.

They go through some physical training, described by Coats as similar to a school gym class. Instructors talk about the criminal justice system, drug use and anger management.

Toward the end of the day, they and their parents are given individual and group counseling.

One key is the followup.

Staff members keep tabs on the children for six months through quasi-mentor relationships. They make sure the children attend school, avoid violent outbursts, stay away from drugs and mind their parents.

The lack of followup, Coats said, is the reason the old-styled boot camp failed. This spring, a study found that 666 of the 740 youths who attended the camp were arrested afterward.

"These kids are very intensely supervised or monitored to make sure they are fulfilling their obligation and responsibilities in what they agreed to do," he said, "like going to school on time, improving their grades ... dealing with anger management issues."

The Pinellas County boot camp closed in June in the fallout from the Jan. 6 death of Martin Lee Anderson. The 14-year-old died one day after he was roughed up by guards at the Bay County boot camp. His death caused an outcry about the harsh physical restraint techniques and intimidation used at the camps.

In May, Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Martin Lee Anderson Act into law, requiring the conversion of military-like boot camps to new STAR programs that prohibit physical contact.

Coats closed the Pinellas boot camp, saying the state Department of Juvenile Justice didn't provide enough funding.

The new Pinellas program has received one year funding of $100,000 from the state Juvenile Justice Department and $200,000 from the County Commission.

"As long as we have students, we'll run the program," Coats said.

Back inside the room with the boys, Grissinger kept her questions and lecture going.

"2, why you here?"

"I stole," the boy said.

"Why did you steal?" she asked.

All the boy could say was, "I don't know."

"I guess you should write me a letter and tell me what I should tell your mom when I send you to prison when you keep stealing stuff, because that's where you're going to go," she said. "You tell me what I should tell your mother. Tell me."

Again. "I don't know."

But Grissinger ended with some hope. "This is your chance," she told them. "Unless you want to come see me in adult court and face the consequences. Here's the time for you to make the choice."

Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

The five boys with pursed lips sat straight backed and still in their black and white striped jumpsuits, like jailbirds. They wore red ball caps with 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 written on them.

- They were just numbers here, in a building behind fences covered in barbed wire, just north of the Pinellas County Jail in Clearwater.

- One freckled-faced 8-year-old sat on the edge of the chair to keep his feet from dangling as Holly Grissinger paced back and forth in front him.

- "Why you here, 3?" asked the assistant state attorney, her voice booming as she stopped and glared into the face of a quiet boy.

- "I was physical with my mom," the 10-year-old replied.

- "Exactly what right do you have, young man, to be physical with your mother?"

- "No right, ma'am."