NAACP Seeks Probe of 'Boot Camp' Death

The NAACP and other groups demanding a special investigation into a "boot camp" for juvenile delinquents in Florida where a 14-year-old died. The boy's mother has accused the camp's guards of beating her son to death.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, examining the effects of Hurricane Katrina in miniature. But first, the Justice Department announced today it is launching an investigation into the death of a 14-year-old boy at a Florida boot camp. A videotape reportedly shows guards of the camp beating the boy. Boot camps are intended as a more effective and humane alternative to juvenile detention centers, but critics say they do more harm than good. From Miami, NPR's Eric Weiner reports.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

What exactly happened at the so-called boot camp in northern Florida is unclear, but this much is certain: Martin Lee Anderson walked into the camp on January 5, sentenced on charges of grand theft audio. Within 24 hours, Anderson was dead. The teen's mother, Gina Jones, describes how she got the news.

Ms. GINA JONES: I received a phone call at 9:50 a.m., tells me go to the hospital, my baby isn't breathing. I get up there. Of course, he's not breathing. He's dead. My baby was murdered.

WEINER: The Sheriff's office that runs the camp says Anderson was uncooperative and had to be restrained, but lawyers for the boy's family, along with members of Florida's Black Caucus, say there is plenty of evidence that Anderson's death was not accidental. Frederica Wilson is a Florida state senator.

State Senator FREDERICA S. WILSON (Democrat, Florida): And I sat with the mother and the father of this young man, and as they described to me what they saw when they arrived at the hospital, they did not even recognize their child. They told me that his nose was as large as two fists, that blood was pouring out of his nose and out of his mouth like a faucet.

WEINER: A videotape reportedly shows Anderson being beat by guards. The tape has not been released to the public, but two Florida lawmakers who have seen it say it shows guards kicking, punching and choking the 14-year-old. One Republican lawmaker who saw the tape says guards threw the 14-year-old around like a rag doll, and beat him even after he was clearly unconscious. A nurse is seen standing nearby, but not intervening.

Florida's Department of Law Enforcement, or FDLE, refuses to release the videotape, saying it is part of an ongoing investigation. Here's Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Governor JEB BUSH (Republican, Florida): I believe that FDLE has shown the tape, or plans to show the tape to the family out of respect for their situation. Legislators saw it, and several staff members of mine saw it, but I don't believe it should be made public until the investigation's complete, which will happen, hopefully, in the next few days.

WEINER: Bush says the boot camps, overall, have a proven track record of success. In the 1990s, dozens of these camps sprouted across the country, offering an alternative to juvenile detention centers. Some are privately operated. Others are run by the state. All are modeled after military boot camps, designed to teach discipline and set young offenders straight. Dave Marcus, author of a book on troubled teens, says that sometimes these programs do work.

Mr. DAVE MARCUS (Author): I started out a project thinking that worse thing you could was parenting by proxy, take kids away from their families, but I realized that if you take them away from communities that are toxic, from families that are toxic, from schools that are toxic, and you really help them work on their problems, and you bring their parents from time to time for workshops, then you can do great stuff.

WEINER: Unfortunately, critics say, that kind of treatment is the exception. Too often, the kids are thrown into grueling physical regiments with little treatment.

Ms. MAIA SZALAVITZ (Author): People think that these are spoiled kids who need to learn respect, or something like that. Oftentimes, they're abused kids, and more abuse isn't going to fix them.

WEINER: That's MAIA SZALAVITZ, author of a book on juvenile boot camps, and a former trouble teen herself who was addicted to heroine and cocaine. The problem with the tough love approach, she says, is that there's too much tough, and not enough love.

Ms. SZALAVITZ: What happens is people believe that in order to help these kids, you need to attack them and be cruel and brutal towards them, and that kind of behavior tends to escalate, and where there is no check on power over powerless people, and when sadism is rewarded, it just gets worse.

WEINER: That, she says, appears to be what happened in Florida, where many are now calling on the state to close its boot camps immediately. The public, meanwhile, may get a chance to see for itself just what happened to 14-year-old Martin Anderson in the last few hours of his life. A judge has ordered state officials to either explain why the videotape should not be made public, or release it by the end of this week.

Eric Weiner, NPR News, Miami.

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