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Boot Camp Brutes
America’s Children’s Gulag

And you thought the Hitler Youth idea was dead and buried.

There’s the case of the 14-year-old boy who had twice attempted suicide who killed himself by hanging at a West Virginia “wilderness residence program” in 2001, the day after he’d cut himself with a camp-issued knife. There’s the 15-year-old Oregon boy who, because he (nonviolently) refused to return to his campsite, was smashed to the ground and restrained there 45 minutes by staff. He died of a severed artery. There’s the 15-year-old California boy who, bit by a spider, became too weak to exercise and was forced to wear a 20-pound sandbag around his neck as a result, because his boot-camp kommandants told him he was faking it. And on the stories go.

Welcome to America’s children’s gulag, the unregulated, unrestrained, unforgiving, unforgivable world of teen “boot camps” where counselors with Dirty Harry complexes abuse children and call it character-building, where they treat them like convicts and call it morally redeeming, where they indulge their sadism and failed parenting tortures without risk of censure, and for pay. The worship of violence as an educational technique is ingrained in American culture — beginning, for that matter, in such things as “The Lion King”’s morality: violence pays, it resolves conflicts, it lets the strong prevail — but rarely so brutally obvious as in these boot camps. They shouldn’t be regulated. They should be banned.

The Government Accountability Office on Oct. 10 released a report detailing the industry’s criminal shoddiness: “[D]uring 2005 alone, 33 states reported 1,619 staff members involved in incidents of abuse in residential programs.” One problem: “GAO could not identify a more concrete number of allegations because it could not locate a single Web site, federal agency, or other entity that collects comprehensive nationwide data.” In other words, the federal government doesn’t exactly care to keep those numbers. If it did, the gulag’s survival wouldn’t stand a chance. But it’s big business, too.

The GAO report details plenty of cases involving the death of teen-agers at — let’s call it by its proper name — torturers’ hands. Let a single example speak for the folly.

Michelle Sutton

Michelle Sutton was 15 years old from Pleasanton, Calif., a town near San Francisco that didn’t live up to its name in Michelle’s case: she was date-raped. She suffered from depression as a result. She wanted to build her sense of self-worth again. Talking it over with her mother, she opted for the kind of place people are usually forcibly committed to — a boot camp, one called Summit Quest, in Utah. The camp was based on a wilderness program, a basic-training sort of thing that ideally builds endurance and confidence. Her mother and father were all for shelling out the $20,600, or $327 a day, for the nine-week program if Michelle wanted it, and if it could help her. The Suttons looked over the brochures, read about the “highly trained survival experts” and the staff’s “unparalleled” expertise and professional experience.

One thing the Suttons were never told. It was a new camp. Michelle would be going on the first hike. The hike was uncharted. Staffers didn’t know much if anything about the trek. So uninformed were they that not long after the five-day hike began, the group wandered across the border from Utah into Arizona, unaware. Sometime along the way, Michelle started complaining of nausea. She wasn’t eating. On the third day, she began vomiting water. The staff’s “highly trained survival experts” ignored the symptoms, thinking she was faking, blaming her for looking for an easy way out. They claimed they had no idea she was dehydrating. On the fifth day, Michelle fell several times. Her mates described her as “distressed.” Still, the staff’s “unparalleled” expertise and professional experience didn’t deem her case worthy of attention.

At 5:45 the afternoon of that fifth day, Michelle collapsed and died. The “highly trained survival experts” didn’t call for help. They didn’t have the means. No radios. Instead, they lit a fire to send smoke signals. It didn’t work very well. They tried CPR. It didn’t work at all. Michelle was dead. The staff covered her with a tarp and walked on. She’d lay there eighteen hours, until a Bureau of Land Management helicopter took her away. The autopsy revealed what had been obvious from the third day. Michelle wasn’t faking dehydration.

Summit Quest was run by Gayle Palmer, who’d started that program after being involved with another controversial one previously. She faced no charges following Michelle’s death, although litigation led to a secret out-of-court settlement. Six months after Michelle’s death, Palmer closed the Utah program and moved to Nevada, where she opened another one. A judge ordered her shut for trying to escape from Utah authorities and from oversight, and for running a shoddy operation with at least one staffer who was an “ex-felon and a fugitive.” Palmer closed shop and joined yet another wilderness program—back in Utah. Four years after Michelle’s death, another teen-ager bedraggled and scared, fled from an illegal operation Palmer was running in the same town where Summit Quest had been based. The Government Accounting Office reports that she’s still a consultant in the field.

If priests could hop the pedophile wagon and screw their way in and out of parishes, with the parishes’ aid, why not the boot camp industry’s torturers? The greater folly though is in parents, schools and social service agencies that sanction these programs, seeing in them what the brochures promise rather than the scars they inflict, the brutal short cuts they take in the name of cowboy grit and alleged responsibility. But a violent nation needs its playgrounds. Boot camps are its snuff version.

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