Neither the state nor the county regulates private boarding schools, and -- after complaints about a Broward facility -- some lawmakers say that situation needs changing.
When police and state child welfare authorities began receiving complaints about a small military school tucked in a modest Fort Lauderdale neighborhood, they wondered what government agency was overseeing the school.
They made a startling discovery: The boarding school, Sister Soldier Military Academy, was operating under everyone's radar.
Sister Soldier, like other private boarding schools, is not licensed by anyone in the city, county or state. It is not required to be.
''This is a loophole in the regulatory system that needs to be addressed,'' said Jack Moss, the Department of Children & Families' Broward administrator.
Child welfare officials became aware of the military school in recent weeks after the state's child abuse hot line received four reports that girls living there had been physically abused, sources say. On Tuesday, the school's operator abruptly shuttered the school, which enrolls girls ages 8-17 at a cost of $2,800 a month.
Denise Smith, who is listed in corporate records as president of Sister Soldier's parent company, JAM Youth Connection, did not return calls for comment.
Smith, who identified herself to parents as ''Major Smith,'' denied abusing any girls in an interview with WFOR, Channel 4. The girls, she said, were often ``disrespectful.''
''I've never hit anyone,'' Smith said.
``But parents do sign a waiver allowing me to restrain a cadet. It's unfortunate we had to close because we were providing a program that benefited these kids.''
The Florida Department of Education does not license private schools.
State law merely requires that private schools register with the state and report the number of children enrolled in their programs each year, a department spokesperson said.
''Private schools are not licensed, approved, accredited or regulated by the Department of Education, or the local education agency, as schools,'' the spokesperson said.
Likewise, the Department of Children & Families has no authority to oversee programs that designate themselves as boarding schools.
Moss said Florida statutes specifically exempt such programs from the DCF's purview. ``Our authority comes from state statutes, which specifically exempt boarding schools.''
Moss said he questioned whether Sister Soldier was, indeed, a boarding school since the academy's education programs are not located alongside the Sister Soldier residences, which are at 3271 Glendale Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale.
``One of the first questions I asked was: `Just because they call themselves a boarding school, does it mean they are?'
''I got a bunch of shoulder-shrugs,'' Moss added.
Fort Lauderdale city officials have looked into the boarding school as well.
Sister Soldier is located in a section of the city that was recently annexed from Broward County, said city spokesman David Hebert, and the area is still subject to county zoning codes. Under those codes, the house is in neighborhood zoned for single-family residences.
Under the county's code, which the city is enforcing in that neighborhood, the military school could operate in the neighborhood as a community residential facility under certain conditions: It would need to be at least 1,000 feet from another social service program or group home, and it would need to be licensed by the state, said Hebert.
''If they don't have a state license,'' Hebert said, they cannot consider themselves a community residential facility.
A DISTRESSED MOM
Hebert said officials in the city attorney's office are working closely with DCF to resolve the problem. ''We consider it a priority,'' he said. ``We will do what we need to do to ensure compliance with our laws.''
One parent who sent her 16-year-old daughter to the military academy said she was shocked to learn Sister Soldier was operating without state oversight.
''I thought they had to be regulated,'' said Kim Powers, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., whose daughter was sent to the school by a Los Angeles talk show, at the show's expense.
And at least two state lawmakers would like to see programs such as Sister Soldier come under some state agency's regulation.
''This is a glitch in regulation, and, obviously, this type of entity is falling through the cracks,'' said state Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who sits on the Senate's Children & Families Committee.
''We always talk about accountability. Obviously, there is no accountability for programs such as this,'' Rich added.
Rich said she would consider supporting legislation next year that would require boarding schools such as Sister Soldier to be licensed and regulated by some state agency. ``It sounds like this is an area where we need to have some additional regulation.''
Said state Sen. Walter G. ''Skip'' Campbell, a Tamarac Democrat who chairs the Children & Families Committee: ``If we need the Legislature to look at this, we will definitely look at it.''
''All these schools need to be regulated by somebody,'' Campbell added.
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