Monday, October 8, 2007

Abuse allegations, apathy show need for ‘boot camp’ regulations

October 7, 2007

Perhaps a federal investigation will lead to better protection for children in Missouri boarding schools. Officials in the state have failed miserably in their role.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office is interviewing students and employees of Thayer Learning Center, a “boot camp” for troubled teenagers in Kidder, Mo., about 50 miles north of Kansas City.

A 15-year-old boy died there in 2004. A coroner said the most likely cause was a spider or insect bite, but a state investigation found that the center denied proper medical care to Roberto Reyes, who was weak and ill in the days before his death.

A 2005 investigation by The Kansas City Star found that at least seven people had reported abuse allegations to the Caldwell County sheriff’s office in a period of a little over two years.

Employees alleged that teenagers were doused with cold water while tied up on a concrete floor and denied access to bathrooms. One girl was forced to sit in a tub of urine, and a boy was tethered to a four-wheeler and dragged on a sand track, according to the allegations. Thayer’s owners have denied all charges.

The sheriff’s office turned the reports over to Jason Kanoy, who at the time was serving as Caldwell County prosecutor.

Kanoy’s handling of the allegations can most charitably be described as apathetic. He appeared to do little work on the case and chose not to take advantage of assistance offered by Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon’s office. Kanoy has since been elected associate judge in Caldwell County.

His successor as prosecutor, Brady Kopek, told The Star he is investigating a recent report by a former Thayer employee, who alleged that a student was choked and brutalized by a “drill sergeant.”

Despite the serious concerns about Thayer, the Missouri legislature continues to resist calls to require such boarding schools to be licensed and inspected.

The federal probe of Thayer and other “boot-camp” programs was requested by U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat. Miller wants Congress to mandate close oversight of the programs.

Based on the allegations of abuse at Thayer — and the reluctance of state and local officials to take them seriously — that remedy appears appropriate.