A teenager sent to a private boot camp in northwest Missouri has died, prompting an inquiry by the Caldwell County Sheriff's Department.
Email from a family member of a child currently enrolled at Thayer Learning Center:
August 20, 2004
I have contacted DSS in Missouri. They told me that they do get complaints in regards to Thayer, however, here is a problem that they have: the child can only be interviewed in certain areas with [Thayer’s] attorney present. According to DSS officer, the child gets punished if he/she says anything negative. At Thayer [DSS] cannot interview the child alone. On top, Thayer can and has done so in the past,. deprive a DSS officer from an interview if child's parents agree on their child not being inverviewed by a DSS officer. The officer told me that in the state of Missouri schools do not need to be licensed and that makes her job very hard. She has also expressed that interviewing children at Thayer is almost impossible. The officer was aware of all the violations at Thayer. She also told me that by law she has to notify the police department in Kidder, where Thayer is, but she openly stated that in her opinion the police department is in on it. Not surprisingly, Kidder is a town of 125 people, I am sure they all need jobs.
Overall conversation with DSS officer was plesant, but unfortunately not productive.
The teenager was a student at Thayer Learning Center Boot Camp and Boarding School, a reform program based in Kidder, Mo., that relies on strict, military-style discipline to reach troubled youths. In recent weeks, a few parents have pulled their children from the boot camp citing concerns about their treatment.
Jerry Banks, who operates Thayer, said the student died Wednesday, less than a week after enrolling in the program. Banks would not identify the student and did not provide an age.
Caldwell County Chief Deputy Sheriff Jeff Alsup said the death was part of an ongoing investigation. He declined to provide further details.
Banks said the student apparently died of an "unexplained medical condition." Students at the school participate in intense physical exercise. But Banks said the student was not involved in any physical activity at the time of death.
Banks said he was not aware of the student having any prior medical conditions that would have required special attention. He said the student appeared healthy upon enrolling at the boot camp.
Banks said he welcomed a thorough investigation. "We're cooperating with everyone, because we want the answer, too," he said.
Thayer is one of several teen-reform programs in Missouri that are exempt from most state regulation. Critics say the lack of regulation makes it difficult to verify that the programs are safe.
But Banks said he was open to those who have questions about the boot camp. In September, he allowed a Post-Dispatch reporter to tour the boot camp.
At least three parents have recently withdrawn students from the program, including one mother who said her son had been in solitary confinement for 11 days. [Emphasis added]
But the majority of parents have stuck with the program, many praising it for rescuing their youth.
Banks said recent criticism of the boot camp stems from misinformation spread by disgruntled employees.
Thayer enrolls more than 100 students, nearly all from outside Missouri. The school charges $4,000 a month for tuition and room and board.
Reporter Matthew Franck
E-mail: mfranck@post mfranck@post -dispatch.com
Former students, parents of former students, and employees have made the following allegations against Thayer Learning Center and its staff:
- A Hindu child was forced to eat meat, then vomited. She was then forced to eat her own vomit.
- One child currently in Thayer is suffering from some type of kidney disorder, and the "nurse" at Thayer is in fact a high-school dropout who also runs the kitchen.
- Boys are forced to share razors instead of being given the ones purchased by parents.
- Some children spend 30 days or more in solitary confinement.
- An emergency room physician prescribed bedrest and antibiotics for a child with an ear infection.
- Back at Thayer Learning Center, the child was forced to exercise and sleep on the concrete floor.
- Thayer staff members told the parents that there was "a little bit of drainage" coming from the child's ear, when in fact, the child's ear was bleeding.
- Two children were reportedly "restrained" with zip-ties around their ankles and wrists.
- One child was attached to a file cabinet.
- Male children have been stripped to their underwear, "hog-tied," and sprayed with a hose.
- Children are forced to "re-write" letters to parents, until the letters contain nothing negative about the program.
- Athlete's foot and other fungal infections are widespread and go untreated.
- Willa Bundy reportedly denied medical care for a child who had the flu and was constantly vomiting.
- According to former staff members, Willa Bundy diagnosed the vomiting as "a ploy to go home."
- When asbestos was found in an old building on the Thayer compound, the Bundys refused to hire trained asbestos removal contractors.
- Instead, students were forced to remove the hazardous removal and instructed to put the asbestos in a pile outside.
- Thayer was fined by the Department of Natural Resources for the improper disposal.
- A child reportedly arrived at Thayer in a nearly comatose condition. The teen transport personnel stated that they had administered prescription muscle relaxants to the child to prevent "problems" during transport.
- Willa Bundy was informed of the child's condition and denied requests for medical attention. She reportedly instructed staff members to put the child in bed until the medication wore off.
- After several children collapsed from heat exhaustion and dehydration, the "drill sergeants" at Thayer began forcing children to drink large quantities of water.
- Requests to use the bathroom are subsequently denied leaving teens with no option except to urinate on themselves.
- During a one year period, group therapy occurred just once - at 10 PM and was led by Willa Bundy.
- One child refused to exercise and was allegedly pulled around by the hair, arm and clothing by John Bundy.
- All calls from children to parents are monitored and children are punished for saying anything against the program.
- John Bundy allegedly forced female students to exercise outside in the snow without shoes.
- One child was allegedly roped to a 4 wheel all terrain vehicle (ATV) and instructed to "keep up."
- When the child could not keep pace with the vehicle and fell to the ground, he was dragged behind it.
- Willa and John Bundy are reportedly gone for extended periods of time and leave their 17 year old daughter in charge of the facility.
- A male staff member supplied illegal drugs to at least one female student.
- As punishment, two children were reportedly bound together with duct-tape and left that way overnight.
- Before announced visits by the Department of Social Services, Willa Bundy allegedly takes "problem" students out for ice cream or to Wal-Mart.
- In one building on the property, 26 female children share 1 bathroom and are given just 30 seconds to get ready for bed at night.
- There are frequent outbreaks of head lice.
- Part of the "fitness training" at Thayer reportedly involves students being forced to run while carrying 5-gallon buckets full of sand.
- Students are awakened in the middle of the night and forced to exercise.
- Children who are not physically fit are required to perform strenuous activities, including 6-mile runs.
- Students have suffered serious injuries and were denied medical attention. Parents were not notified of their child's condition.
- The facility reportedly has no certified teachers. Classes are "taught" via videotape.
- Level 1 boot camp students sleep on a concrete floor in a basement.
- At present, 18 boys are in the basement which has just one bathroom.
- The facility is reportedly overcrowded and housing some children in trailers, yet hoping to double enrollment for the summer boot camp program.
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