Monday, January 22, 2018
Education

State to 'colonel': License your military school or deal with a prosecutor

Alan Weierman, the self-titled colonel whose unaccredited military school has been allowed to house children for years despite abuse allegations, got an ultimatum from the state this week:

Get licensed or close.

The Department of Children and Families warned Weierman in a letter that he has 30 days to earn a state license or DCF will seek criminal prosecution and is prepared to ask a judge to permanently shut down his Southeastern Military Academy in Port St. Lucie.

The action is part of a statewide crackdown on unlicensed children's homes prompted by a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found hundreds of children are being housed outside of state oversight.

Most of these homes operate legally under a religious exemption. However, the Times found five homes operating with no state-recognized credentials, and state officials subsequently found three more.

All have been asked to show proof that they are trying to get accredited. Weierman's academy, a home for boys that combines religion and military-style discipline, is the first to be given a 30-day warning of legal action.

If the state seeks a court order, it would mark the first time it has tried to shut down any unaccredited children's home since 2009, when DCF unsuccessfully sued to close a boys' home run by Weierman at the time.

If a judge sides with the state, about a dozen boys living at Southeastern Military Academy could be sent home to their parents, who are paying $28,600 in tuition for them to learn obedience and discipline.

DCF officials said they may issue warning letters to more homes but are still investigating.

Weierman said this week that he would consult his attorney about how to respond.

"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 told the Times in an email.

"I am not opposed to licensure," he said. "But I also am 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."

After his long, contentious relationship with DCF, it appears unlikely the department would grant him a license.

The last time they did, more than a decade ago, it was a short-lived decision both sides soon came to regret.

In 2000 alone, DCF responded to allegations six times and found credible evidence in four investigations, including cases involving asphyxiation and beatings.

Weierman said the allegations were false. He said DCF workers were dishonest and unfair and complained that DCF calls allegations "verified" using a lower burden of proof than used by the courts.

In 2001, on the day DCF was scheduled to present evidence to a judge to revoke his license, Weierman surrendered it.

He soon earned accreditation through the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, a nonprofit group empowered by state law to regulate religious children's homes that choose to avoid a state license.

FACCCA accreditation would still be an option to save Weierman's school, if he can earn it within 30 days, but FACCCA discontinued his accreditation in 2004 because his home, once a shelter for kids of all ages, had evolved into a boot camp.

Weierman has since operated his academy as a "boarding school." In Florida, boarding schools must register with the Department of Education. But the agency only keeps a list of the schools. It does not regulate or inspect them.

Since the school left FACCCA in 2004, DCF has responded to 13 allegations of abuse and neglect at Weierman's group home. In six cases, investigators verified the incidents, which included physical and mental injuries, medical neglect, threatened harm, bizarre punishment and asphyxiation.

In 2008, a runaway told police he had been shackled for 12 days, beaten, choked to unconsciousness and berated with racial slurs. DCF investigated and found that all 16 boys at the home had been mistreated, including some who said they had been bruised and bloodied.

The department called parents to remove all the boys, but prosecutors declined to pursue charges.

In 2009, the state sought a permanent injunction to keep Weierman from housing children, noting that he was not accredited as was required by law.

But a judge declined the state's injunction request and said Weierman was making a "good faith effort" to get accredited.

Weierman is still trying.

He says the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is expected to review his school in March. But as far as DCF is concerned, his time is up.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.

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