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The Debate on Boot Camp for Kids

Aired August 2, 2001 - 14:33   ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: For a while, they seemed to be a cure for the country's ailing juvenile justice system, but now some people are taking a second look at juvenile boot camps, which subject troubled children to military-style discipline.

CNN's Ed Lavandera has the controversy.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sergeant David Cruel is about to unleash...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're on my time now!

LAVANDERA: ... a roar of discipline. It's 5:00 in the morning and the start of a long day for 19 juvenile offenders at a Panama City, Florida boot camp.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We will break them down, physically and mentally.

You can run, you can run!

And then try to build them up by telling them how well they're doing.

Back straight. Back straight! You can get up!

LAVANDERA: This boot camp is the last chance for troubled teenagers. They're young, multiple offenders on the verge of hard- core prison time.

CAPT. MICHAEL THOMPSON, BOOT CAMP SUPERVISOR: They can easily be adjudicated in the state of Florida at the age of 14 and sent to prison. These programs are in place to keep them from going to that environment.

LAVANDERA: This camp claims 2/3 of juveniles released do not commit a crime within a year, but a federal government study shows boot camps have little impact. And now a series of high-profile incidents have put camps across the country under intense scrutiny.

Fourteen-year-old Tony Haynes passed out during an exercise drill in a privately-run Arizona boot camp. He had been throwing up mud and eventually died.

GOV. JANE DEE HULL, ARIZONA: I think it is important that we have some sort of regulation and oversight and education of parents for these, before parents send their kids out there.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Juvenile boot camps started in the mid 1980's. Because of its get-tough image, the camps became very popular and started popping up all over the country. But in recent years, bad publicity and questions of effectiveness have forced some states, like Maryland and Georgia, to shut down its boot camps.

ORLANDO MARTINEZ, GA. JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM: I have yet to have seen a study that would show the boot camps are effective.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Orlando Martinez oversees Georgia's juvenile justice system. He shut down the state's boot camps. He found the culture disturbing.

MARTINEZ: And it does promote and breed situations where staff can be very abusive to kids under the guise of treatment.

LAVANDERA: Critics also say boot camps are unable to help offenders with mental or learning disorders, and of the kids who do qualify, many wind up back where they started. Like this 14-year- old...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When I got over here, I about peed my pants.

LAVANDERA: The boy was doing drugs by the age of 6. He is in a boot camp now because he assaulted a school board member. He's about to leave the camp and return to the same neighborhood where trouble found him. But the young offender is optimistic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think this camp saved you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, yes sir! I would probably have been in jail by now, sir.

LAVANDERA: It costs lots of money to run a boot camp, and success isn't guaranteed.

THOMPSON: You can give these children anything they need to succeed, but if they don't take it, there's nothing their parents are going to be able to do and nothing we're going to be able to do.

LAVANDERA: There are plenty of loud voices debating the future of boot camps. It's a fight over the best way of saving a child.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Panama City, Florida.


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Joining us now to debate whether these boot camps are a good solution for troubled kids are David Smith. He's with America's Buffalo Soldiers Re-enactors Association, which runs such a camp. He joins us from Phoenix. And in Washington, Dr. Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist, who says military-style camps are a poor solution to bad behavior.

Dr. Brody, we'll start with you. Yesterday, you were on this program talking about violence on television, speaking eloquently of how it is affecting our nation's youth. But now we have youth at end of the road, if you will, in a boot camp that might prevent them from entering prison if they don't succeed there. Now you have violence right in the face of children. What do you think of it?

DR. MICHAEL BRODY, CHILD PSYCHIATRIST: I think it's a very poor solution. I think it's a poor solution because No. 1, you're taking a group of youngsters who have many problems -- impulse disorders, problems with the law -- and you're putting them together. They're too homogeneous.

You're also dealing with youngsters and you're providing separation anxiety, making things worse. You're traumatizing them with the separation and you're also maybe subjecting them to even more trauma. Most of these youngsters have suffered from trauma and abuse before, that's one of the reasons that they've gotten into this situation.

WATERS: David Smith, defend that. You can't fight trauma with trauma.

DAVID SMITH, BUFFALO SOLDIERS RE-ENACTORS ASSN.: Well, let me tell you, boot camps have gotten a bad name recently. But the fact of the matter is that boot camps teach honor, respect and discipline. And they teach these kids that so that many of them, when they get out, they are successful in leading a good, noncriminal life. We're talking about kids with social, behavioral and criminal problems. This is a last-ditch effort. If we don't save them, as the good doctor said, they're going to prison.

WATERS: We've heard this argument before, but Orlando Martinez, who oversees the juvenile justice system here in Georgia shut down the camps here, saying, "I've yet to see a study that shows a boot camp to be effective." Do you have access to such a study? Is there any evidence to show that these boot camps are effective?

SMITH: Well, I can tell you this: I'm the attorney for American Buffalo Soldiers, and we've 350 students go through various boot camps that we've operated and about 90 percent of them have been successful. And the kids that I've seen and talked to and the parents we've seen and talked to have told us, hey, we're happy that my child went through this boot camp.

Because this was the last thing the parents could do. The kids with spit in their parents' face, they would slash their cars, they would steal their money, and they wouldn't obey the parents. We see them every day on the TV shows.

What I'm saying is, it's the last-ditch effort to try to save our kids.

BRODY: But these -- yes, but these kids suffer from mental problems. And the problem is you're separating them from their parents, other community resources. They're going to come back into the community and we have to rehabilitate the kid. The idea of boot camp, even the name "boot camp" goes to the fact, when I was veteran of Vietnam of the war, there, when I served in the public health service and commissioned by the Navy, the idea of boot camp was to orient people. Orient people who were 18, 20 years old. It's considered very tough, difficult, brutalizing. The structure is wonderful.

Some of the people that run these things -- and there's a whole spectrum of this, from the federal to the state authorities -- but oftentimes what we're doing is we're brutalizing these kids. And is it done because we want to help the kids, or is the done because we want to punish the kids?

SMITH: Well, Doctor, no one's supporting brutalizing or abusing children. What we're trying to get the children to do is develop character, so they don't commit crimes, so they respect their parents -- so they have honor in themselves, honor their parents, honor their teachers, and have some discipline so that they can go out in life and become good citizens. These kids, a lot of them are social misfits. They have behavioral problems and they're mixing with other kids going through the same strict discipline, and they join a unit group together, so that there are successful in graduating from boot camp.

BRODY: Yes, but these ideas of honor, integrity and so forth are what we call, as a psychiatrist, post-conventional types of value system. These kids have to first develop preconventional, where they're afraid of authority, and then go on to the possibility of understanding better the importance of authority and wanting to please authority, like most normal 8- or 9-year-olds are.

WATERS: What's the solution to this problem? This debate will go on, I guess, and the boot camps will go on. but Maybe they'll more abuse at these camps, so what do we do about it?

SMITH: Well...

BRODY: Well, these things have to be much better regulated, they have to be much better accredited. And again, we used to have a spectrum in our country. If kids were having difficulties, they might be sent away to deal with a relative, they might go to boarding school, military school. But to send them to a semi-type of prison as an alternate to prison, with future criminals and our kids and forming this homogeneous group with possible further brutalization is not the solution.

WATERS: Quick last worth, Mr. Smith?

SMITH: Yes, I totally disagree with the doctor. He's all wet. The problem is, we don't need more government regulation. That costs money. Today, our juvenile court system...

BRODY: It does cost money!

SMITH: The juvenile court system is overloaded.

BRODY: The children are our future, though.

SMITH: We don't give enough money to the mental health facilities that we need. We don't need a government bureaucracy to regulate these schools to cost the parents more money.

WATERS: OK, we'll have to end it there. David Smith, with America's Buffalo Soldiers Re-enactors Association, Dr. Michael Brody, thank you both.

BRODY: Thank you.

SMITH: Thank you.



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