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Maia Szalavitz Headshot

Of Chimps and Children

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This morning on the "Today" show, I saw a lengthy segment on "retirement programs" for Hollywood chimps. While I strongly favor greater protections for primates used in research and for other human purposes, it got me wondering. Why doesn't America's most popular morning show devote that kind of time to serious issues affecting human children?

On Sunday, for example, the Miami Herald (which has been relentless and sharp in its pursuit of this story) revealed that at the boot camp in which 14-year-old Martin Anderson died earlier this year, there were 180 reports of force being used against kids in the program documented in the last three years. Only eight of these incidents involved youth attacking guards.

In other words, 96% of the time that guards reported using force on teenagers -- force which included punches, kicks and focused pressure aimed at uncomfortable spots on the head and applied harshly enough to cause bruising -- the teen was not a threat to himself or others. "Breathing heavily" "tensing themselves" or basically looking at a guard in a way that the guard deemed "insolent" was enough to provoke a beating. A smile on Christmas Day in 2004 was enough to provoke a takedown that was duly written up.

While force is used without justification in prisons all the time, correction officers know enough to hide it in their reports by claiming that the inmate attacked first. But in a boot camp, where "tough love" will cure these kids of their misbehavior, officers saw no need to hide their brutality. They were proud of it.

Why isn't this a national scandal? Why don't we care that in both private and publicly run systems, teenagers are routinely treated in ways that the Constitution denies the state the right to apply to violent, convicted felons? Why isn't it a much bigger story? Only the Florida papers have been following it in any kind of ongoing depth at all.

As Americans, we have got to recognize that it is simply not acceptable to use force to "help people" -- whether we want to "help" them to divulge the secrets of terrorist organizations or help them behave better in general. The behavior we model matters. And the research is pretty clear that brutal physical and psychological attacks don't work, anyway -- whether you're trying to interrogate a prisoner or get a kid back on the straight and narrow.

The media needs to convey this message -- because what we teach our children and how we treat the least amongst us is critical to the health of our values and culture. So yeah, save the chimps, but how about sparing some time for the children, too?