What does it take in Florida to shut down a rogue boarding school operator who has willfully evaded state regulation for more than a decade? St. Lucie Circuit Judge Robert Belanger has given Alan Weierman another 16 months to run the unregulated Southeastern Military Academy despite advice from state child protection staff and reports of injuries and bizarre punishment. Once again, the state of Florida — this time the courts — has failed to protect some of its most vulnerable citizens.
Belanger's ruling after a two-day trial last month was disturbing enough given the school's sorry track record. Over the past decade, the Department of Children and Families has investigated the school at least 25 times and found that children have been punched, kicked, slammed into hard objects and choked to unconsciousness. The judge offered these inappropriate observations from the bench: "Abuse sometimes is in the eye of the beholder" and, "Sometimes, putting shackles on kids might scare them straight."
All of that in defense of a man who surrendered his state license in 2001 under pressure from the Department of Children and Families and then took refuge under a nearly 30-year-old state law that privatized regulation of religious group homes. But even that porous and superficial regulatory structure — detailed extensively in a recent series by Tampa Bay Times reporter Alexandra Zayas — ultimately took exception to Weierman's operation and booted the school out in 2004.
Since then, Weierman has operated the Southeastern Military Academy in a blind spot of state law where boarding schools, once open, are required to register with the state Department of Education and work toward accreditation by an academic organization within three years. Yet, Weierman still has not received accreditation for the school.
None of that seemed to matter to Belanger, making it all the more imperative for the Legislature to change state law.
Defenders of the status quo have argued that since Zayas' series was published late last year, the private agency that oversees religious schools, the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, has approved reforms and the DCF has exercised its discretion by cracking down on rogue schools where abuse is alleged. One school profiled in Zayas' series, where girls were routinely placed for hours in solitary confinement and forced to listen to religious sermons, decided independently to shut down.
None of that is enough when an operator such as Weierman can continue without any regulation and a judge is so cavalier about the abuse of children. The Legislature created this mess when it allowed a porous regulatory structure for those who make their living taking care of minors. The 60-day legislative session starts Tuesday, and it's up to House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz to see to it that this gets fixed.