A Panama City juvenile boot camp will be shut down and Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober will investigate the death of a teenager who had been beaten by guards at the camp.
In rapid-fire developments Tuesday, the treatment of another boy raised new questions about operations at the camp, and the medical examiner who concluded the teenager died of a blood disorder renewed his medical license, which expired last month.
Despite the controversy, Gov. Jeb Bush reaffirmed his support of Florida's five boot camps.
"I believe that boot camps are worth having," said Bush, who appointed Ober as special prosecutor. "We need to learn from this tragic case and make some standard, regulatory proposals to the Legislature."
Boot camps are military-style programs designed to shock juvenile delinquents into complying with the law and to teach them discipline, study skills and work habits. They require rigorous physical training such as pushups and running.
Several lawmakers want all the boot camps closed in light of a security video showing guards at the Bay County facility beating Martin Lee Anderson even as he gave little or no resistance.
Medical Examiner Charles Siebert concluded the teenager died of sickle cell trait, not from the beating. But even Bush questioned that conclusion.
"If he wasn't beat up, that undetected illness wouldn't have caused death," Bush said.
The governor appointed Ober to investigate the death. Bay County State Attorney Steve Meadows begged off because of his close ties to Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen.
Ober's investigation will include the autopsy, Bush said, "to take a look at that evidence and put some new eyes on it."
McKeithen operates the boot camp under contract with the state Department of Juvenile Justice. He has not spoken much about the tragedy, saying he wanted to wait for the investigation to conclude.
But Tuesday McKeithen announced he would cancel the boot camp contract with the state in 90 days. He declined comment, saying he would issue a written statement today.
"I believe the integrity of the boot camp in Bay County has been compromised, leaving the effectiveness of this program virtually paralyzed," he wrote to Anthony J. Schembri, who heads the Department of Juvenile Justice. He wrote that he decided to close the camp "after endless days of intense, thorough and careful consideration."
McKeithen, who said he has seen "some very positive results" from the boot camp, wrote that he wants to create a new juvenile program "which we have been working on for several months."
Bay County Commission Chairman Mike Nelson said he was happy with McKeithen's letter, which he read aloud at a commission meeting Tuesday. He said commissioners already had their doubts about the boot camp before Martin died because they were paying a fourth of its $2-million budget even though most of the youths were from other counties. Besides, he said, "how much success are they really having with it?"
The teenager's parents said it wasn't enough to close the boot camp. They still want authorities to acknowledge their role in the death of their 14-year-old son.
"Certainly, they feel regret that their son had to die to have changes come forth," said Benjamin Crump, the family's attorney. "Nobody has accepted responsibility."
Earlier Tuesday, another allegation of poor medical care at the Bay County boot camp surfaced.
Shauna Manning said her son, 14-year-old Aaron Swartz, suffered from asthma. But medical professionals at the boot camp refused to recognize his medical condition, she said.
She said her son described feeling dizzy after boot camp authorities forced ammonia pills in his face. He complained to his mother about physical punishments, including knee kicks and pressure point contact, similar to what the video show guards used on the teenager.
No parent would treat a 14-year-old child like that, Manning said.
"If we do this, we're going to jail for child abuse," she said.
After the teenager's death, Manning said the camp brought in a doctor who found her son's asthma prevented him from participating in the program. He was transferred to another juvenile facility.
When Siebert concluded Martin died of natural causes, he was practicing without a medical license. His license expired Jan. 31 and he did not renew it - until Tuesday.
He renewed it in person in Tallahassee, said Doc Kokol, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health. Siebert will be fined $385 for practicing without a license for a month.
First-time offenders like Siebert generally aren't disciplined further, Kokol said. Fewer than 3 percent of physicians whose licenses must be renewed fail to do so in an average year, Kokol said.
The teen's family is challenging his report, though they have not said how they will do so.
Options include filing a complaint with the state Medical Examiners Commission and asking an independent pathologist to review the files, photographs and slides that Siebert made during the autopsy. The family also could exhume the body for a new autopsy.
"We haven't ruled anything out," said Crump, the attorney.
The Medical Examiners Commission looks to see "if something was just blatantly overlooked, or somebody had drawn the wrong conclusions," said Stephen Nelson, commission chairman and Polk County's medical examiner.
Cynthia Lorenzo, a spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, said boot camps are one of several programs used to rehabilitate "moderate risk" youths. The agency's own reviews, along with consultation with legislators, will help determine if "this is still a viable option."
[Last modified February 22, 2006, 01:05:09]
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