If parents used on their children the same kind of force regularly administered at boot camps, the state would intervene. So why has it been tolerated?
Six weeks after guards punched, kneed and choked Martin Anderson at a North Florida juvenile boot camp, Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober to investigate "all matters connected" to the 14-year-old's death. To do that thoroughly he must look beyond the incident and answer these questions: Why did the state, which knew for years that guards used excessive force, tolerate the abuse of children? How did that permissiveness create an atmosphere that encouraged beatings such as the one that Anderson received shortly before he died?
Ober has moved quickly to consolidate the probe, taking control of the investigation from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, ordering a new autopsy and bringing in his own team to investigate how Anderson died Jan. 6, only hours after entering the Bay County Boot Camp, where guards were videotaped beating him. Once Ober receives the new autopsy report, expected any day, he will have a cause of death and can pursue whether criminal activity was involved.
Anderson's beating cannot be examined in isolation. As th e Miami Herald reported, records show that youths at the Panama City boot camp were repeatedly kneed, punched or restrained by guards using "pressure point" holds on their ears and chins. Of the 180 times since 2003 that guards documented using force, only eight instances were in response to youths' violent behavior or escape attempts. In the vast majority of cases, the Herald reported, guards attacked youths for being "insolent," talking back or lacking "motivation" - even "breathing heavily."
The Herald found no evidence the state Department of Juvenile Justice, which received copies of the "use of force" reports as overseer of the boot camp program, objected to the guards' practices, even though the department in 2004 banned the use of force in most situations. Authorities declared as "appropriate" all but seven of the 180 instances when force was used. If parents punished their children the same way, the state would intervene. "What you have there," one expert on juvenile justice who examined the files told the Herald, "is an administratively approved, systematic pattern of torturing children."
So what authority do the guards have to touch these youths in the first place? A Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman said in February that the 2004 ban on physical force did not apply to boot camps. Juvenile Justice Secretary Anthony Schembri told the Herald Tuesday he did not stop the guards in Bay County because he was unaware of the "use of force" reports and because a locally elected sheriff ran the operation. "They discipline their own people. I discipline my people," he said.
That answer is unacceptable. The boot camps are operated by sheriffs, but they receive state money and are considered part of the juvenile justice system. The secretary may be trying to avoid accountability, but Ober should not accept Schembri's excuses. While he examines the specifics of Anderson's death, he also should explore whether the teen's fate was sealed by the culture of a bureaucracy that tolerated abuse in the boot camps and looked the other way in Tallahassee.
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