Last week, I had the alternatively terrifying, exhilarating and moving experience of back-to-back speaking engagements at Washington's libertarian Cato Foundation and at a rally in Tallahassee for justice for teen boot camp victim Martin Lee Anderson, headlined by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
About 40-50 people attended the Cato event on Thursday, which was held at the well-appointed offices of that DC think-tank. I spoke about the problems that come from believing that hurting kids can help them and the history of the idea of tough love.
Rolling Stone writer Evan Wright discussed his personal experience in an abusive troubled teen program known as The Seed (one of the programs I discuss in my book, Help at Any Cost), in a fascinating presentation. A video of the event is available here. For another personal take on The Seed, see here.
The Florida rally, on Friday, was attended by roughly 2,000 college students. Some wore shirts asking whether Martin Lee Anderson, who died at 14 after being beaten by boot camp guards, was the next Emmett Till (who was also 14 when he was lynched). Many also sported band-aids on the right side of their foreheads.
One student told me, as she handed out bandages, that they'd begun doing so to start conversations with others -- responding with the story of Anderson's death when people asked, "What happened?"
The students' spirited opposition to the way the death has been handled earned them a meeting with Governor Jeb Bush, who appears eager to put the whole incident behind him and has appointed a special prosecutor in the case.
What affected me most, however, was seeing and meeting Anderson's family: his mother, Gina Jones, his father, Robert Anderson, and most of all, his younger sister, Startavia, just 13. Watching them hear thousands chanting about justice for their son and brother was heart-rending: each seemed alternately cheered by the support and then saddened and angered again by what had prompted it.
The feeling at the rally was electric: the energy of the student organizers powerful and their commitment obvious. Afterwards, I spoke with the family and their lawyers, who told me about their own meeting with Governor Bush.
According to Gina Jones and one of the attorneys, at one point, Bush told them he wanted to take away the certification of the staffers who had beaten Anderson to death. But he couldn't do that: they didn't have any.
That, to me, sums up what's wrong with the way we treat kids who get in trouble. In most states, you need a certification to be a manicurist or hair braider; in some, you can't be licensed as a barber if you've been to prison because you lack the "moral" qualifications. There are more federal regulations on the transport of chickens than there are on programs like boot camps that hold troubled teens.
To supervise and lockdown teenagers, no license or certificate is necessary. To refer parents to teen programs as an "educational consultant," no qualifications are needed. Anyone can set himself up as an expert on difficult children and run "programs" which transport them in handcuffs from one state to another, keep them locked up without appeal until they are 18, use corporal punishment, isolation and restraint.
If we are to prevent more families from experiencing the unspeakable pain of losing a child, we must change this. Most teens who are sent away don't have problems serious enough to require a custodial sentence -- Martin Lee Anderson certainly didn't.
Nonetheless, since we will for the foreseeable future continue to take some kids from their parents and put them in alternative sentencing programs and since some parents may need to send some teens to residential treatment, the very least we can do is ensure that that care is safe and is provided by qualified, caring, educated professionals who might actually know something that could help them.
Let's hope more college students take their cue from those who rallied in Florida and speak out about this sorry state of affairs. Many more young people need to be educated about the kinds of treatment that some adults want to impose on them -- and fight against ineffective and harmful "help."