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Boot camp rules likely to cut pain, raise safety

No arm twisting or wrist bending. No choke holds. And at the first sign of trouble, call 911.

Those are among the new rules Florida's boot camps for juvenile offenders will likely follow under changes prompted by the increasingly controversial case of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, who died after he was roughed up by guards at a Panama City, Fla., camp.

State officials on Wednesday announced they were revamping boot camps but gave few specifics. The changes became more apparent Thursday, with one sheriff saying he took them as a mandate from Gov. Jeb Bush.

"The governor's intent is to bring sheriffs to the table and discuss the possible changes that might be made," said Bush spokesman Russell Schweiss.

State Rep. Gus Barreiro, the Miami Beach Republican who has been most outspoken about the camps, said the proposals are a great leap forward.

"They'll go a long way in preventing another boot camp death," he said. "Unfortunately, they weren't in place for Martin Anderson. He would have still been with us."

Medical examiner Charles Siebert last week ruled that the youth died of a blood disorder, not the boot camp beating.

The changes, which could be formally outlined as early as today, would prohibit the use of pain for behavior modification and bar use of ammonia capsules unless medically necessary.

Drill instructors at the Panama City camp may have violated both of those provisions as they roughed up Martin Anderson during his first hours at the camp in early January. He was kneed, punched and thrashed by drill instructors and at one point, they stuffed ammonia in his nose. He died the next day at a Pensacola hospital.

Among the other likely changes:

Besides receiving an EKG and medical exam 30 days before entering the camp, each youth must be evaluated again and drug tested on the first day.

Medical staff members must be present as youths arrive at a camp, usually the most intense part of the experience as guards attempt to establish control through shouting and physical contact.

The medical staff must intervene when youths say they are unable to participate in an activity such as running or pushups. And nurses must call 911 at the first sign of a problem. The staff would also have to have training and access to defibrillators.

Videocameras would be installed in key areas.

In a security video, a nurse appeared to do nothing as drill instructors kneed and punched Anderson. After about a half-hour, an ambulance took his limp body away.

His death has sparked outrage and calls from some lawmakers and child advocates to close Florida's five boot camps. Gov. Bush and the top official of the Department of Juvenile Justice, Anthony Schembri, say they are worth saving.

Bush and Schembri met privately Wednesday to discuss the controversy, and Schembri later called the sheriffs who operate the boot camps.

The Panama City boot camp will close within 90 days, the Bay County sheriff said this week. A camp in Martin County will close this summer due to funding problems.

Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder said his camp, which lawmakers have cited as a model, already complies with most of the changes. Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats said likewise.

"I told (Schembri) I don't have any problem with that," Coats said.

The controversy over Siebert's autopsy widened Thursday when Dr. Shairi Turner, the top medical official with the Juvenile Justice Department, expressed surprise at the finding that Martin Anderson died of sickle cell trait, not the beating by guards. Turner, appearing before a legislative committee investigating boot camps, said it was her understanding that in only "very, very extreme situations of low oxygen" would someone show manifestations of the disorder. Siebert again defended his finding and suggested Turner should conduct further research.

Turner, who joined the agency in April 2005, is not registered to practice medicine in Florida, the state Health Department's online database shows. She last worked as a physician at a walk-in clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital and received her medical degree from Case Western University in Ohio, agency records show.

Bush communications director Alia Faraj said Turner didn't need a Florida license to do her job: "Dr. Turner is an extremely qualified physician who serves in an administrative role at DJJ. She serves in a policy role in the agency, and her medical background is an asset."

In another twist late Thursday, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd disputed Schembri's characterization a day earlier of why he closed down the state's only boot camp for girls in 2004.

Schembri said Wednesday, "We had girls that were urinating in their pants," and added that eight out of 20 there met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We have absolutely no evidence, none at all of that," Judd said. He said planned to talk with Schembri. "I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he got his programs confused."

Alex Leary can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or aleary@spttmes.com.

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