FORT LAUDERDALE `BOOT CAMP' -- Slew of calls drew police to school
By Carol Marbin Miller
Miami Herald, June 3, 2005

Fort Lauderdale police confirmed they've joined welfare agents in probing complaints that girls at a boot camp-style school were abused.

Fort Lauderdale police have been called eight times since April to a Fort Lauderdale home operating as a private military school, including two visits in recent days to investigate allegations that a cadet had been beaten by a school employee.

Since April 18, Fort Lauderdale officers accompanied child abuse investigators with the Broward Sheriff's Office five times to the military school, 3271 Glendale Blvd., said Andy Pallen, a spokesman for the department. In Broward, BSO conducts child abuse probes under a contract with the Department of Children & Families.

Of the three other calls by police, one involved a May 13 trip by paramedics to check on a 17-year-old girl who had passed out, one involved a 16-year-old girl who was suffering an asthma attack May 11, and the other occurred on April 9, when officers were called to involuntarily commit a girl to a psychiatric hospital, Pallen said.

Sister Soldier Military Academy abruptly shut its doors Tuesday amid ongoing investigations into reports that girls enrolled there had been physically abused.

Fort Lauderdale zoning officials also had been studying whether the academy was in compliance with the city's zoning code.

''I went into the hospital the day I found out about my daughter,'' said Katie Bogle, a mother of two from Winter Park, Colo. ``They thought I was having a heart attack.''

Bogle's 15-year-old daughter, Unyque, spent three months at Sister Soldier, and told her mother she had been beaten twice by caretakers. ``She told me she was not beaten as much as the others. She kept her mouth shut. She kept her head down, and she did what she was supposed to do. She didn't complain and she didn't whine.''


Denise Smith, who is identified in corporate records as president of Sister Soldier's parent company, has not returned several calls for comment. Smith insisted that parents and children call her ``Major Smith.''

The army-style school enrolls girls considered behavioral problems ages 8-17 at a cost of $2,800 a month. The students at the school are called `cadets.'

Reports on the military school in The Herald have prompted calls by state lawmakers to close a loophole in Florida licensing laws that allows private boarding schools to operate without state regulation.

Two other parents, one from Pembroke Pines and another from Tennessee, have told The Herald their daughters told them they were beaten -- including blows to the face -- by Sister Soldier's ''major''. The girls told their mothers they were struck after trying to call home for help.

The most recent visits by police to Sister Soldier were on May 28 and May 30, Pallen said, when officers accompanied BSO child protective investigators looking into complaints received by the state child-abuse hot line.


Sources have told The Herald the May 28 visit followed a report to child welfare authorities that a girl at Sister Soldier had been beaten by a so-called ``drill instructor.''

A school instructor, who asked not to be identified, said she had seen the girl the next day.

''She had swollen lips and sores in her mouth,'' the instructor said. ``She had scars on her face, scars on her arm, and talked about her foot being sore.''

The girl told the employee that another drill instructor had dropped a ''log'' on her foot.

Cadets were forced to hold heavy logs in their arms for extended periods as a form of punishment, the employee told The Herald.

Bogle, the Colorado mom, said she saw the log during a short visit to the home the day after her daughter's birthday. When she asked another girl what the log was for, the girl began marching in a circle with the log in her arms. ''She said we have to carry this around for punishment,'' Bogle said.


Murfreesboro, Tenn., mother Kim Powers said her daughter, Jessica, claimed that she had been injured by the log, as well.

Parents interviewed by The Herald said they were asked to sign waivers giving up the right to sue Sister Soldier's parent company, JAM Youth Connection, if their children were injured.

A copy of the waivers, given to The Herald by Powers, warned parents that their children could be harmed if staff needed to restrain them.

''Physical action will be taken against your child, and to whatever extreme the staff feels necessary at that time, to protect anyone in harm's way,'' a ''disciplinary disclaimer'' states. ``Due to the level of force that may be used, there may be bodily injuries to your child.''

Parents who signed a liability waiver gave ``permission to physically handle and restrain their child during any of the company's functions, as the company feels needed.''

The parent ''understands participation will subject the child to risk and injuries, and companies will not be liable for medical expenses or other claims for damages or death,'' the waiver states.

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