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Judge allows military home to stay open despite abuse complaints

FORT PIERCE — Despite a list of state findings that includes, most recently, bizarre punishment and a broken bone, a self-titled "colonel" and his unlicensed Port St. Lucie military academy can continue to house and discipline boys for 16 more months with no oversight.

On Thursday, St. Lucie Circuit Judge Robert Belanger gave Southeastern Military Academy until June 30, 2014, to gain the accreditation of two state-recognized organizations. That is a "drop dead" date, the judge said. If it lapses, he would grant the state's request to shut down the academy.

State law requires boarding schools to get accredited within three years. June 2014 will mark an entire decade that the military school run by Alan Weierman has not been overseen by any state-recognized authority.

Belanger's decision came at the end of a two-day hearing in which the judge opined, "Abuse sometimes is in the eye of the beholder," and "Sometimes, putting shackles on kids might scare them straight."

It came after Weierman took the witness stand and testified he was in the Army, without acknowledging he left within six weeks because of an allergy to bees. And it came after he said he provided phone access to his cadets without being asked if those calls were monitored.

Weierman left the courthouse with a broad smile, giving assurances that he would be accredited by his new deadline.

It marked the second time he triumphed over a state effort to shut him down. In 2011, another judge found he was making a "good-faith effort" to get accredited.

The Florida Department of Children and Families filed the second attempt in January, two months after a Tampa Bay Times investigation exposed how Weierman and others have been able to run children's homes outside state standards despite evidence they hurt kids in their care.

State child welfare workers do not regularly inspect unlicensed homes to guarantee the living conditions are safe. Some have a religious exemption, and some operate without any state-recognized credentials at all.

Thursday's court decision illustrates the lack of power DCF has had for more than a dozen years over Weierman. In 2001, he surrendered his home's license amid a DCF attempt to revoke it. He then took refuge under a religious exemption that allowed him to be overseen, instead, by a private, nonprofit organization.

But in 2004, that group had a problem with his boot camp approach, and he lost the exemption. He registered the home as a boarding school with the Department of Education, which does not inspect private schools.

"How can he keep doing what he is doing?" asked Michaela Mattox, a mother who withdrew her son after the Times investigation. The boy said academy staff physically slammed him to the ground, and that he witnessed a boy get punched.

Alex McEntee, a 17-year-old who recently ran away from the home, also said he watched a boy get punched.

DCF says it is investigating a face-punching allegation.

Weierman has denied that his academy is abusive and notes he has never been charged criminally for the ways he disciplines boys.

In this shutdown attempt, the state relied less on its investigative history and more on the statute that dictates all boarding schools must get accredited within three years. But its own licensing specialist admitted that the law is confusing, and an accreditor testified Weierman was cooperating with the credentialing process.

Judge Belanger initially said he would give Weierman until April 2014, but after an interjection from Weierman's defense attorney about needing more time, the judge decided on June.

A DCF spokeswoman said the department will discuss whether to file an appeal. Meanwhile, its lawyers are scrutinizing other unaccredited boarding schools identified by the Times.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.

Judge allows military home to stay open despite abuse complaints 02/21/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 3:28pm]
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