Boot camp death on film

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
US reform schools under fire as guards caught on camera physically assaulting teenager. Stephen Phillips reports


Graphic film of a 14-year-old boy being beaten by drill sergeants at a Florida boot camp the day before he died has led to renewed calls for the military-style reform schools, popular in several US states, to be abolished.

Martin Lee Anderson is shown being wrestled to the ground and forcibly restrained by five guards at Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp in Panama City, in disturbing footage broadcast on US television last week.

The teenager, who offers no resistance, is kneed, punched on the arms and dragged to his feet while his legs buckle beneath him, before his limp body is later placed on a stretcher.

The guards shown in the video have said Martin, who had been sent to the boot camp for taking and crashing his grandmother's car, was being unco-operative.

Ben Crump, a lawyer representing the teenager's family, said Martin had been unable to complete the physical exercise he had been ordered to perform.

The local coroner's ruling last month that the teenager's death on January 6 was unrelated to the beating and caused instead by complications from sickle cell trait, a rarely-fatal condition affecting one in 12 African-Americans, has sparked accusations of a "cover-up" by black community leaders and law-makers.

"It was murder. They treated him like a rag doll, just tossed him aside,"

said Frederica Wilson, Democrat senator for Miami in Florida's legislature, who has led calls for an official inquiry into the case and a new inquest.

Late last month, the US department of justice announced it would investigate the teenager's death.

The guards have not been charged and remain on duty with "non-contact status", meaning they "don't have one-on-one contact with offenders", pending the outcome of a probe by Florida's department of law enforcement, a spokeswoman for Bay County sheriff Frank McKeithen said.

Last week, Mr McKeithen announced the boot camp would close, saying its "ability ... to operate effectively had been compromised".

The case is also fuelling fresh calls for Florida's four other boot camps - which, unlike others in America, are all run by local sheriffs - to which hundreds of delinquent students are sent annually in lieu of school, to be shut down.

That would be long overdue, said Doris Mackenzie, professor of criminology at Maryland university.

Supporters say the military-inspired shock tactics deployed in boot camps scare wayward teenagers back on to the straight and narrow and instil character, but Ms Mackenzie said study after study discounts this.

"We looked at all the studies and found that they're not effective in reducing recidivism," she said.

Ms Mackenzie noted that Florida's boot camps remain in existence despite state officials' own analysis, which found a "very high" re-offence rate among teenagers attending them.

At least 38 children have reportedly died at US boot camps since their inception in the early 1980s.

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