When a child dies, discipline has failed

EDITORIAL: Miami Herald, January 13, 2006

There can be no good reason why a healthy, athletic 14-year-old boy should enter a state-sponsored boot camp and end up on a stretcher fighting for his life three hours later. Yet that happened to Martin Lee Anderson of Panama City, who died hours after entering the Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp last week.

State officials, who promised reforms after boot-camp violence two years ago, now say the state will review its policy of allowing physical force at the camps. That's not enough. The state has tried reforms and failed. The camps should be closed down altogether, as state Rep. Gustavo ''Gus'' Barriero, R-Miami, is suggesting.

Physical force
Detailed information about exactly what caused Martin's death awaits completion of an autopsy. But what is known thus far is all too familiar and highly disturbing. Rep. Barriero said the boy had bruises on his face and that his nose may have been broken. Unlike at state-operated juvenile-detention facilities, the Department of Juvenile Detention allows boot camps to use physical force against the juveniles in custody. The idea of the boot camps -- there are six in Florida -- is to rehabilitate the youngsters with a ''tough love'' program of physical exercise and strict discipline. The problem, however, is that the boot camps are almost all ''tough'' and very little ''love.'' The results are predictable. Many children leave the facilities bitter and angry, and with a keener sense of the power of physical confrontation.

Some people think that beating up on children can produce good results. They believe that boot camps are just an organized extention of the concept, ''Spare the rod; Spoil the child.'' They are wrong. These camps have mastered the art of bullying, intimidating and badgering children into submission. They neglect to mentor, teach and counsel their charges.

Florida doesn't need camps that demean children and break their spirit when there are dozens of other programs, such as Outward Bound and Vision Quest to name just two, that build pride and self-esteem in children through coaching, teamwork, respect and positive reinforcement.

Recidivism rate
''Tough love'' didn't work for girls, either. Florida shut down its only boot camp for girls two year ago in Polk County after reports of unacceptably high levels of recidivism among those who finished the program.

DJJ's own records show a 62 percent recidivism rate for boot-camp boys. Social science experts who have studied the camps say flat-out that they don't work. Scaring and frightening children doesn't change their behavior. State lawmakers should pull the financial plug on boot camps. They mustn't wait for another child to die while being "scared straight.'' email thisprint this

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