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Fix boot camps, or close them?

As a tearful mother accused guards at a boot camp of murdering her 14-year-old son, state officials gave little indication Wednesday that they are willing to shut down the military-style camps for troubled youths.

"Don't let this happen to another child," said Gina Jones, mother of Martin Lee Anderson, while standing with prominent black officials.

But at a legislative hearing, several lawmakers said that rather than close the camps, they prefer tightening safety and training procedures and adopting a more consistent approach to the use of force.

"To suggest we need to throw the whole concept out because of this one incident is just flat wrong," said Rep. Everett Rice, a committee member and former Pinellas sheriff who started the county's boot camp in 1993.

Several other members of the House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee expressed support for the boot camps. They also criticized the Department of Juvenile Justice for not addressing shortcomings that may have led to the death of the youth on Jan. 6.

While a videotape allegedly showing several guards beating the youth has not been released, its political impact seems to grow with each day.

On Wednesday, black lawmakers and the NAACP again called on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to release the video, which the Miami Herald and CNN have gone to court to obtain.

Rep. Gus Barreiro, who has seen the video, says it includes shocking images of a half-dozen drill instructors at the Bay County boot camp punching and kicking the youth to death.

Barreiro, chairman of the committee that took up the issue Wednesday, wants Florida's five boot camps closed and was unswayed by what he heard.

"If anything," he said, "it reinforced that they are ineffective and indeed dangerous."

Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the Anderson family, said the guards forced ammonia tablets up the boy's nose. Exposure to ammonia can cause eye irritation, coughing, lung damage and death in high enough concentrations.

The day Martin Anderson died, Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen ordered drill instructors to stop using ammonia capsules on teens suspected of faking unconsciousness.

"The whole state is watching Bay County over what happened in this situation," Crump told the House committee on Wednesday, his arm around the boy's mother. "And our country's eyes are fixed on Florida about what happened in this situation."

During the committee meeting, Rep. Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor who has viewed the video, noted disparities in boot camp policies on the use of force.

Bay County drill instructors, for example, can use pain to get an inmate to comply while those in Martin County are more restricted. Uniform standards are needed, Gelber said.

The panel also reviewed other incidents at the Bay County facility, including one from February 2005 in which a juvenile said nine or 10 guards held him up against a wall as one of them grabbed his throat.

"The staff yelled for the juvenile to say, "Sir, yes, sir,' which the juvenile immediately complied with," the report said.

The Department of Juvenile Justice said the complaint was unsubstantiated.

The incident that led to Martin Anderson's death was reported by camp officials, who distilled it in two sentences: "During physical training, youth M.A. passed out on the ground and was unresponsive to staff. 911 was immediately notified."

Christian Caballero, chief of staff for the Department of Juvenile Justice, sought to offset a day's worth of criticism.

"We have to fight the urge to say we're just going to scrap it," he said. "We may have to at some point but we're not there yet."

Problems were identified before the recent death, he acknowledged. "Maybe we haven't been as vigilant as we could be," Caballero said. But he explained much of the focus has been on other corrections facilities.

A Florida State University criminology professor who testified Wednesday said numerous studies have found boot camps ineffective.

"To say it's mixed is really a bit of a stretch. I would argue it's more negative than positive," professor Thomas Blomberg said.

He noted that more than 30 children have died nationwide in boot camps - an "alarming" statistic considering how few juveniles they handle.

"There are probably other ways to spend money than boot camps," Blomberg said.

But Steven Chapman, a Department of Juvenile Justice researcher, said Florida's programs are different because they incorporate mental health experts, substance abuse programs, education and support after youths graduate.

Those elements are most prominent in Martin County, the facility considered the best of Florida's boot camps. But it is set to close this summer because of funding cuts.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

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