FORT PIERCE — Alan Weierman, the self-titled "colonel" of an unlicensed military home with a yearslong track record of abuse findings, went to court Wednesday to defend against a state effort to shut him down.
The Department of Children and Families presented evidence that in the past year, child protectors have verified that Weierman broke one boy's arm and subjected another to bizarre punishment, shackling him overnight. They are still investigating whether a staff member punched a boy in the face.
At the heart of the state's case is that Weierman is operating his Southeastern Military Academy in Port St. Lucie without a state license or alternative credentials, and has been for almost nine years, when he lost his accreditation under a religious exemption.
Florida law gives facilities that register as "boarding schools" three years to get accredited. Using that law, DCF tried to shut him down in 2009, but a judge found he had been making a "good-faith effort."
The department filed another petition in January, two months after a Tampa Bay Times investigation exposed how Weierman and others have run homes outside state oversight for years despite evidence they hurt kids.
A DCF worker testified Weierman told him his school was accredited, even though it was not. Another began to speak of abuse findings dating to 2004, when Weierman started to brand his home as a boot camp.
But Weierman's attorney, well-known on the Treasure Coast as a former prosecutor, shook his fist and raised his voice.
"I want to present evidence he was never arrested for any type of child abuse," Robert Stone told the judge.
Circuit Judge Robert Belanger said he would listen only to recent abuse cases. Then he asked everybody to sit and told a story.
He prefaced it with this:
"Abuse is sometimes in the eye of the beholder."
Judge Belanger said he was in the eighth grade when a teacher caught him out of class, chased him with a meter stick, beat him with it and broke it over his head. He learned his lesson, he said.
Sometimes, he said, cause and effect is a good way to learn.
"Of course, I was a Marine," the judge said, and glanced at Weierman, who told the Times he tried to join the Army more than three decades ago but was dismissed after six weeks because he was allergic to bees.
Weierman, wearing fatigues, nodded at the judge and every time the judge entered or left the room, he stood at attention.
All of that said, the judge wanted to know if the boys had been choked, asphyxiated or bruised, as had been reported in years past.
The state told of a broken arm, and a boy who blamed Weierman. The defense said the boy couldn't remember what happened when police asked.
The state told of a log that showed another boy was shackled overnight; he said he was called a sand n- - - - -.
The defense showed a handwritten letter. "Are you aware that young man is back to the school now?" Stone asked. "Are you aware that he wrote a letter apologizing to the institution and saying he lied?"
The judge did not hear about others who said they were called racial slurs, including a black boy in 2008 who said he was shackled and called a "monkey."
Stone, whose written answer to the state's petition contains the words "slander" and "vendetta," questioned the DCF workers aggressively, not just about the cases, but about the department's overall purpose.
"You want to be able to control every individual that has supervision over kids, isn't that correct?" Stone asked.
"Don't you all really interfere in families' lives by telling them how to raise their kids?"
Weierman nodded in agreement.
The state will call at least one other witness today. Then, it will be up to Judge Belanger to make a decision.
While he said he does not want to prejudge, he said the previous judge's ruling gave an "amorphous" deadline for Weierman to get accredited and that if he were to deny the state's petition, he would set a "drop dead" date.
After the hearing, Weierman said his attorney thinks the case is going well for him. And Stone offered what he thought was a reasonable date for Weierman to get accredited:
"Three years from right now."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.