A tiny boarding school for troubled girls in Fort Lauderdale -- once used by the juvenile justice system as an alternative to jail -- has closed as detectives investigate allegations that four students were abused, state and county officials said.
The sheriff's Child Protective Investigative Services has targeted the Sister Soldier boot camp school since the first child abuse allegation was leveled three weeks ago, said Broward Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Liz Calzadilla-Fiallo.
Details were not released other than there are four alleged victims, some living in this area and some out of state.
Denise Smith, president of the company that owns the school, did not respond to messages left with an answering service.
Since January 2001, the school has served a handful of girls at a time with drill instructors leading calisthenics, walking them through the county jail and counseling on anger management.
The inquiry could last one or two more months, but the sheriff's office has been told the school stopped operating out of a house at 3271 Glendale Blvd., Calzadilla-Fiallo said.
Smith had other contacts with the courts. She was arrested three times in the 1990s on forgery and theft allegations. The first two cases were dismissed. She pleaded no contest to grand theft of a vehicle but adjudication was withheld.
Fort Lauderdale officials also are investigating to determine whether the school violated zoning rules for single-family homes, said city spokesman David Hébert.
Sister Soldier was receiving referrals from the court system as well as its own clients six months after it opened in 2001, Smith said in a news story at the time.
The juvenile court system sent "several girls" to the school in 2001 but stopped once officials heard the school was charging the families as well as the courts, said Ron Ishoy, spokesman for the State Attorney's Office.
On Wednesday, Ishoy said, "After the state Department of Juvenile Justice began cutting their funding for diversionary programs, we looked out into the community to find suitable agencies to help keep the appropriate children out of the criminal justice system. [Juvenile Justice] officials looked at this particular program and approved them."
Sister Soldier is one of at least two programs operated by JAM Youth Connections of Fort Lauderdale, state records show. JAM also operates the co-ed Elite Leadership Military Academy in Fort Lauderdale. Elite's supervisor Theo Perez says his program is similar to Scared Straight.
State officials are wrestling with which agency is responsible for overseeing Sister Soldier. The Department of Children & Families has no jurisdiction over the school other than hiring the sheriff's department to investigate abuse allegations, said DCF spokeswoman Leslie Mann. She said the boot camp is not a group home but a boarding school under the purview of the state education department.
Sister Soldier is not registered with the state education department, said spokeswoman Cheryl Etters. JAM is not on the department's Web site as a boarding school or a private school.
"The theoretical question is ... when is something a group home and when is something a boarding school?" Mann said. "There's a very cloudy line."
Bill Hirschman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4513. Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
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