Boot Camps Take Another Hit

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Already sullied by claims of machismo-fueled abuse and a relatively poor record of success, tough-love programs for juvenile offenders are now getting another kick in the teeth. A coalition of savvy Florida college students, civil rights activists and politicians are protesting the death earlier this year of a 14-year-old boy in a rural North Florida boot camp, alleging not just abuse but a cover-up that is proving a major embarassment for Florida Governor Jeb Bush in his last year in office. Thursday evening, Bush's Department of Law Enforcement Secretary, Guy Tunnell, who established the boot camp during his tenure as Bay County Sheriff, abruptly resigned.

Martin Lee Anderson, 14, died Jan. 5, hours after arriving at a juvenile boot camp for stealing his grandmother's car and violating probation. A local coroner says sickle cell trait, not an altercation with boot camp guards, killed Anderson. But an eerily silent surveillance video shows Bay County deputies restraining, kicking and punching the boy, who at times appeared limp and unable to comply. The results of a second autopsy remain secret, but at least one coroner involved says the youth did not die of sickle cell, or any other natural causes.

Following Anderson's death, Florida officials shut down the Bay County boot camp while state lawmakers scrambled to improve standards at the handful of remaining programs. But that hasn't been enough to satisfy critics of the handling of the incident.

Frustrated over a lack of progress, more than 30 well-dressed, laptop-toting college students from Florida State University, Florida A&M University and Tallahassee Community College respectfully took over the office entryway of Gov. Bush for more than a day, singing civil rights songs and communicating to supporters via cell phones; they called for the release of the autopsy report and the arrest of the seven guards and attending nurse seen in the video. "A boy has been murdered. A boy has been killed. A boy has been beaten. A boy has been slammed to the ground," said Ramon Alexander, 21, student body president at Florida A&M. "His life has been taken away. And we have not had action in 105 days."

They gave up their sit-in Thursday afternoon at the request of Anderson's parents to prepare for a march. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton spoke to crowd of about 1,500 at that rally in front of the the state capitol building Friday morning. Both demanded the state complete its investigation and punish those responsible. They later met privately with Gov. Jeb Bush.

The level of mistrust over the investigation is fueled in part by the fact that the local state prosecutor says he accidentally deleted e-mails from January and February, while other e-mails have surfaced showing former state Law Enforcement chief Guy Tunnell outlining his department's initial refusal to release the surveillance video.

Created in the mid-1980s as a cost-effective way of using "tough love" to turn around troubled youth, many juvenile boot camp programs have closed due to poor performance and marginal results. North Dakota, Colorado and Arizona all abandoned boot camps in the 1990s after mounting allegations of abused kids were measured against miserable recidivism rates. Georgia shut down its program in 1999 and Texas, a state synonymous with discipline, is shuttering its programs. Even before the latest controversy, Florida was in the process of scaling back its boot camps. Now, however, it wouldn't surprise anybody if that kind of tough love gets the boot for good.