Friday, April 20, 2018
Education

State asks judge to shut down unlicensed military school with a history of mistreating kids

State officials asked a judge Friday to shut down an unlicensed Port St. Lucie children's home that for years has been allowed to operate despite evidence it has hurt kids in its care.

In an 80-page petition, attorneys for the Department of Children and Families cataloged more than a dozen incidents in which its investigators found evidence children were neglected, injured or otherwise mistreated while in the care of Alan Weierman, the self-professed "colonel" who runs Southeastern Military Academy.

The agency says the home must be shut down because it operates with no state license and has failed to get other state-recognized credentials, such as private school accreditation.

The state's action was prompted by a Tampa Bay Times investigation that chronicled Weierman's more than two decades running religious homes in Florida.

Over the years, Weierman has classified his children's homes in different ways so he could continue to operate.

His home once had a state license but surrendered it. He qualified for private accreditation as a religious group home but lost that too. Most recently, he began calling his program a boarding school but was unable to earn the state-required accreditation.

For the past eight years he operated with no oversight at all.

The Times investigation exposed how similar homes — places parents choose when they cannot care for kids or deal with their troubled behavior — have been allowed to operate across the state. Some claim a religious exemption from licensing and are monitored by a private religious organization. Others operate illegally, without credentials.

Weierman's is among the most troubled unlicensed homes in Florida. Since the mid-1990s, the state has investigated more than 30 allegations of mistreatment and found some evidence in at least 19 cases.

The court papers filed Friday against the academy note two 2012 abuse investigations that until now had not been public. In one, DCF workers "verified" that a child suffered a bone fracture at the academy. No further details were available.

The second case — involving a child allegedly kept in leg restraints for a week — remains under investigation.

Without immediate action to close the home, children face "immediate, irreparable injury or harm," DCF wrote in its petition filed in St. Lucie Circuit Court.

Department officials said Friday they also were notifying prosecutors that the unlicensed home was operating in violation of the law.

The Times identified five schools operating with no state-recognized credentials.

Four, including Southeastern Military Academy, were registered with the state Department of Education, but lacked the accreditation required of boarding schools. A fifth was not registered with the state at all.

DCF has warned all the homes that failure to get state-recognized credentials could lead to court action.

Friday's petition marked the first time the state has tried to shut down an unlicensed home since 2009, the last time the DCF sued to shut down Weierman's military home. The department told a judge Weierman did not have the required credentials, but a judge found that he had been making a "good faith effort" to get accredited.

His academy is up for review in March by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits private and public schools. But as far as DCF is concerned, his grace period is over.

Weierman did not respond to phone or email messages left Friday afternoon. In November, after DCF first warned Weierman it might take court action, he told the Times he would try to work things out with state officials.

"I know they have a job to do and am confident that once they see our evidence, they will accept the place we are in the process," Weierman wrote in an e-mail. "I am not opposed to licensure. But I am also not opposed to a criminal proceeding about this. I can just imagine the state attorney's face when he is presented with this case. Like all he has to do is prosecute unlicensed boarding schools."

He has denied that he or his program are abusive.

"Child abuse requires intent to commit harm," he told the Times in an on-campus interview in September.

The department keeps secret the details of its investigations, including the two most recent ones mentioned in the petition.

But 14-year-old Manuel Heusohn, whose parents removed him from the academy just before Thanksgiving, recalled a runaway recently shackled to a restraint device called "Big Momma."

"He sleeps with shackles on," 14-year-old Manuel Heusohn told the Times in late November.

Manuel said he was never shackled but said adults slammed him to the ground for cursing. He said he saw a school employee punch a boy in the mouth.

Weierman allowed the Times to watch last fall as boys forced down a bowl of vegetables soaked in vinegar — punishment food called "stuff."

Manuel gagged as he swallowed the only kind of meal he would eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner for days. He later told the Times that after one days-long stretch, he accepted corporal punishment with a paddle so he could eat normal food again.

"Why do they need to go to that extent?" Manuel asked. "Why do they need to go that far?

"I think that place could be a lot more beneficial if bad things like that didn't happen."

Times photojournalists Kathleen Flynn and Carrie Pratt contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.

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