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Maia Szalavitz Headshot

Boot Camp Death Connections

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When fourteen-year-old Martin Anderson died after being beaten by guards in a Florida boot camp in January, it seemed as though the media would portray it as just another "isolated incident," another case where tough love was taken "too far" by over-zealous staff.

But the coverage this time has been different: unlike accounts of prior deaths, most reports have cited the research showing that boot camps do not work and the press has begun to link their political connections to their continued existence.

And here's where things get extra strange. The man who founded the Bay County Boot Camp where the boy died, Guy Tunnell, is now Commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. His agency has been charged with investigating the death.

According to the Miami Herald, Tunnell hired "most" of the staff involved in the beating of Anderson after he founded the program. He claimed, nonetheless, of course, that his investigation would be "fair and impartial."

Even more curiously, the autopsy on the boy--which found that the boy died from sickle cell trait, not as a result of the beating--was not done at the hospital where he died, as would usually be the case. Anderson died in Escambia County--but according to the Herald, Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen specifically requested that the post-mortem be performed in Bay County.

The medical examiner there, Charles Siebert, is under fire for signing off on autopsies that he may not have actually conducted--one, for example, said it found male organs on a female body. Siebert also had allowed his medical license to lapse and apparently admitted that his performing the Anderson autopsy rather than the other county's examiner doing so, was "highly unusual."

The most interesting connection of all, however, is this: Tunnell serves on the advisory board of the Drug Free America Foundation, formerly known as the Straight Foundation. After Mel Sembler's tough love program, Straight Inc., [link to last post here] was forced to shut its doors in the early 90's following numerous lawsuits and abuse charges, it changed its name to the Drug Free America Foundation and its mission from providing "treatment" to teens to fighting efforts to liberalize drug policy. Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his wife Columba are also on this board.

So, here we've got a man who is supposed to be investigating a program he himself founded and staffed, who serves on the board of another organization with a lengthy history of promoting tough "cures" that turned out to be dangerous and abusive.

Meanwhile, similarly-connected Jeb Bush continues to re-iterate his support for boot camps, claiming, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they have "a proven record of success."

With the videotape of the boy's beating bringing increased media heat, however, Bush has promised to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation and have the autopsy reviewed. The Bay County boot camp will be closed--but still Bush continues to say that such programs are "worth having" and others in the state will remain open. I'd like to know why.