As state officials investigated reports of physical abuse, the discipline-oriented Sister Soldier school in Fort Lauderdale sent students back home. firstname.lastname@example.org The head of an unlicensed boarding school for girls in Fort Lauderdale, called Sister Soldier, abruptly closed the private program Tuesday amid ongoing child abuse investigations by state child welfare officials and police.
The Broward Sheriff's Office, which conducts abuse investigations under contract with the Department of Children & Families, has received four separate complaints that girls housed at the boarding school were physically abused, sources told The Herald.
DCF officials said they could take no action against the military-style school because the school holds no license from the department.
DCF contacted Fort Lauderdale officials, who were preparing to close the school for lack of compliance with city zoning codes, said DCF Broward Administrator Jack Moss.
''My daughter was punched in the eye and choked,'' said Kim Powers, whose 17-year-old daughter, Jessica, spent nearly three months at the school after being sent there by the producers of a television talk show, the Larry Elder Show, where she had appeared on two episodes dealing with unruly teens.
''She had a black eye,'' the mother said.
Show officials could not be reached for comment.
''I had no contact with her whatsoever,'' said Powers, who lives in Murfreesboro, Tenn. ``They were not sending her letters to me. And my letters were not going to her. They took them.''
Denise Smith, who is listed in corporate records as president of the company that operates Sister Soldier, did not return calls to the school for comment. Smith, who identified herself to parents as ''Major Smith,'' also was not at the school Tuesday afternoon.
Florida records show Smith has been arrested three times. The first two arrests -- a 1991 forgery charge and a 1996 car theft -- were dropped by prosecutors. Smith pleaded no contest to a March 1997 auto theft charge following the third arrest, and adjudication was withheld, records show.
On Tuesday, parents of the half-dozen girls housed at Sister Soldier received calls to pick up their children and take them home.
At about 3:30 p.m., 37-year-old Stephen Davis pulled up to the modest beige house and left with his 17-year-old daughter, Terri, who put a blue military uniform and black boots in the trunk of his car. He said Smith and a police detective called him earlier in the day.
''Major Smith just said the program was closing down and all the girls were going home,'' said Davis, who drove in from Tampa. ``We had to pick them up today.''
Terri told Davis that teens at Sister Soldier had been ''physically restrained when they [school staff] needed to'' -- but he said he is taking his daughter's claims ''with a grain of salt'' for now.
Davis said he found out about the program from the Internet.
The boarding school, at 3271 Glendale Blvd. in the Melrose Park neighborhood, was housed in a modest ranch-style home with peeling paint and white trim.
Windows in the house were equipped with bars on the inside. Walls in the living room appeared to be painted black or a very dark color.
Parents who enrolled their children paid an entry fee of $5,300, and $2,800 per month, according to the program's website and one of the parents.
Sister Soldier accepted girls aged 8 through 17.
''Female cadets accepted into our program reside in a rigorous, structured military environment,'' the website says. ``The military style program in conjunction with the emphasis on leadership develops informed citizens who are strengthened by discipline, understanding and citizenship.''
CLAIMS OF BEATINGS
One incident under investigation by child welfare investigators involves two girls who claim they were beaten after they tried to call their parents for help.
Shannon Guinn, 16, who lives with her mother in Pembroke Pines, went to Sister Soldier at the end of March after spending three days at a wilderness boot camp run by the school's parent company, South Florida-based JAM Youth Connection. After about two weeks, she called her mom on a cellphone she had borrowed.
'She said, `Please mommy, when can I come home?' '' said her mother, Cheryl Guinn.
Another girl, Jessica Powers, tried to call her family, but couldn't reach them.
Within minutes, the families say, Smith brought the two girls into the one room in the house that does not have a surveillance camera.
''She slapped me on my face, she threw me up against the wall and put me in a chokehold,'' Shannon said. ``She hit me in the face repeatedly. After the chokehold, she threw me on the floor and put her knee in my back.''
Two weeks later, Cheryl Guinn saw her daughter at a baptism held by a local pastor associated with the discipline-oriented school.
''Something about her jaw looked funny,'' the mother said. 'She said, `Mom, that's where I got hit in the face.' ''
Kim Powers said her daughter was sent home from Sister Soldier when operators said her daughter had become seriously ill.
Powers said the boarding school even took Jessica for a colonoscopy without calling the family for consent. Eventually, Jessica was diagnosed with a blocked bowel.
While at the military-style school, Jessica was forced to eat nothing but beets for days at a time, Powers said. On another occasion, she was limited to eating only oatmeal.
''Jessica ate beets for breakfast, lunch and dinner,'' said Shannon, adding that Smith treated Jessica particularly harshly.
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