Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Maia Szalavitz Headshot

As In Abu Ghraib, Higher-Ups Avoid Arrest in Teen Boot Camp Death

Posted: Updated:

Nearly a year after 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson was killed by guards at a Florida sheriff's juvenile boot camp, eight people-- including the nurse who stood by and watched indifferently as the others kicked, beat and ultimately suffocated the boy-- have been charged with aggravated manslaughter.

But the real culprits in the case-- just as in the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal-- have avoided indictment. Guy Tunnell, the man who set up the boot camp and as head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement defended it even as he was charged with investigating it and Frank McKeithen, a sheriff who was suspected of trying to cover up the abuse that led to the death-- were both cleared.

No one high in the chain of command faces charges: in fact, Anthony Schembri, the man who heads juvenile justice for the state of Florida wants to stay on under the new governor, even though a former employee of the agency's inspector general's office claims he was fired because he would not help cover up the causes of Anderson's death. Schembri is the man who once claimed that the boot camp staffers felt "beaten up" by Anderson's death and that it was caused by lack of funding and support for the camps from the legislature!

Further, so far as I can tell, the policy-makers who ultimately caused the death have not been held accountable. The people who set the policies that allowed the Florida boot camps an exception to the prohibition on the use of "pain compliance" tactics such as punches, kicks, ammonia capsules and restraint as punishment for children in the system appear to have remained unscathed.

Those policies have been revised and the sheriff's boot camps have been shuttered-- but private facilities can still humiliate, attack and degrade teens as "rehabilitation" and the supposedly gentler centers that will replace the sheriff's camps in Florida will still be run by law enforcement, not by psychologists, psychiatrists or even educators trained in working with troubled children.

While the individual perpetrators of Anderson's death deserve punishment, until America ceases to believe that "getting tough" and breaking children is what turns them around, injuries and deaths like Anderson's in boot camps and other "troubled teen" programs will continue. On any given day, tens of thousands of teens are subjected to emotional "attack therapy," and may be deprived of food, sleep, isolated, restrained and humiliated in programs that give them no way to report abuse and no way to escape. Eight arrests is a start-- but for real change, the leaders, not the grunts on the ground-- need to be held responsible.

Register To Vote