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Posted: Mar 24, 2006 08:55


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The Florida Boot Camp Tragedy
By: Lon Woodbury

The recent tragic death of 14-year-old Martin Anderson in a Florida state run boot camp might be the event that finally brings adequate public awareness to this dangerous and inappropriate method of working with teens with problems. To review the national media reports on this event, go to

What happened in Florida was that a couple of hours after Anderson was admitted to the Florida boot camp run by the Sheriff's office, video cameras showed the guards roughing the boy up for non-compliance. According to newspaper reports, the non-compliance was because Anderson was not participating in the running and physical exercises demanded of him. It is unclear if he refused to do them or was unable to do them. Either way, it is obvious the guards assumed he was malingering and punished him accordingly. After being roughed up for about a half hour, he was sent to a hospital. The next day he was pronounced dead and taken off life support systems.

This recent news does not surprise me because this tragedy is just one more in a long list of boot camp tragedies. We began reporting on boot camps and boot camp tragedies almost 20 years ago. (For a list of letters, articles and mentions go to and type the term "boot camp" into the Google Search.) The danger and inappropriateness of the boot camp philosophy became very clear to those of us working in the private Emotional Growth/ Therapeutic School and Program network in the early 90s, when three youths died in three private Utah boot camp programs. (The media, in their lack of understanding, mislabeled these as wilderness programs.) Since then, responsible private practitioners have consistently condemned the boot camp philosophy, and subsequent boot camp tragedies have occurred mostly in state run programs with state employees.

Responsible childcare professionals condemn the boot camp philosophy because it is inappropriate, and the mentality is dangerous.

Inappropriate: Boot camps operate on a punishment model, and obtain compliance through fear of being punished by the authoritarian staff. Compliance is the goal, and the assumption is that if an inmate complies and does what is required, then somehow he/ she will change his/her thinking and internalize doing the right thing. To the functional adult or teen, the connection is quickly made. He/She rapidly learns how to avoid punishment and earn whatever rewards are offered by satisfying the drill sergeant type of staff. However, this often backfires with the struggling teen. A child placed in a boot camp for rebelling, will very likely rebel even more, thus leading to greater punishment, restraints and continuing conflict. Or, he/she learns how to suck up to staff, or "jail it," which means he/she appears to comply without changing his/her thinking, or he/she plots how to escape. All of these reactions are unhealthy and do not help the teen. While a "boot camp" philosophy might help a psychologically intact teen such as a typical military recruit, it will often further damage a child that has a psychiatric disorder or is emotionally immature.

Dangerous: In boot camps, the staff mentality is such that any form of resistance to their authority is considered a challenge, and interpreted as manipulation, malingering or laziness. The boot camp staff solution will usually be to increase the pressure on the child by incorporating more punishments, threats, restraints or physically roughing the kid up to obtain compliance. Considering the population, the staff may be right even 90 percent of the time in their assessment of the cause of the non-compliance. At those times, they are successful in forcing the child to greater exertion, but that does not necessarily help heal the self-destructive thinking. However, this success seems to make the staff complacent, because in boot camp situations where a child has died, the child was in real physical distress, but the staff were either punishing him/her or forcing him/her to greater exertion. Boot Camp staff seem to misread or overlook signs of real physical distress, and that is dangerous to the child.

There are better ways to work with a child who is making very poor decisions and needs residential intervention, ways that are more effective, appropriate and less dangerous. Perhaps the national publicity of this most recent tragedy will convince Congress and Legislatures to rethink their endorsements of boot camps and consider the approaches by the more respected private parent-choice network of Emotional Growth/ Therapeutic Schools and Programs talked about in this newsletter.


I am a great believer in the way which Woodbury Reports conducts themselves and allows for open dialog.

U.S. Transport Service, has transported 1348 youths to different types of schools and programs to date. We are seeing trends with the youth and parents that are quite alarming and disturbing. We are finding parents who are actively seeking punitive type schools and discipline rather than emotional growth. We are also seeing the youth becoming much more combative and violent as they are now aware of these types of schools and programs and predetermine how they will or will not go. These combined thinking traits are making the intervention that much more demanding both physically and emotionally for all concerned.

U.S. Transport Service has set the standard for the intervention process. Many new transport companies are coming on line, they copy our website, in some instances word for word, and pass themselves off as professionals in this field. We have now transported three youth who have managed to get away from three separate, newly formed transport companies. The unethical practice of schools receiving and petitioning for kickbacks for referrals from these transport companies in disturbing. In order for us all to maintain a level of integrity we must be able to speak frankly with the parents, youth, and schools and programs of what we know and have experienced.

We pride ourselves on the fact that we do not and will not pay or receive money for referrals. We pride ourselves on having the ability to tell a parent to find a different school or find a different transport company. This practice only bothers the schools and programs who are concerned with a 2nd opinion. We have a very good working relationship with many schools and can help the parents through the decision making process when they have decided to make this important change in their lives.

The schools and programs are only as good as the people who work for them. When we report on a school or program, this is the #1 thing we look for. A consistent environment that will allow for growth and change. This cannot be achieved if the staff is constantly being turned over and retrained, furthermore is a direct correlation as to the philosophy and treatment of the youth. Secondly, that the dollars spent for your child are going into their care and education. Third, that the environment and location are clean, safe and is what the parents have been promised. Out of the 1348 children we have transported only 38 parents have gone out ahead of time to check-out the facility they have committed their most precious asset to. This is why transporters must remain separate from the schools. This practice can only increase our accountability and integrity as an industry.

It is the individual U.S. Transport Service Agent that makes the difference, it is their philosophy, physical presence, attitude, and experience that ultimately insures a successful transport.

Thank you,

Jodi Stewman,
Director U.S. Transport Service

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