Army-style girls school shuts doors
As state officials investigated reports of physical abuse, the discipline-oriented Sister Soldier school in Fort Lauderdale sent students back home. The head of an unlicensed boarding school for girls in Fort Lauderdale, called Sister Soldier, abruptly closed the private program Tuesday amid ongoing child abuse investigations by state child welfare officials and police.
The Broward Sheriff's Office, which conducts abuse investigations under contract with the Department of Children & Families, has received four separate complaints that girls housed at the boarding school were physically abused, sources told The Herald.
DCF officials said they could take no action against the military-style school because the school holds no license from the department.
DCF contacted Fort Lauderdale officials, who were preparing to close the school for lack of compliance with city zoning codes, said DCF Broward Administrator Jack Moss.
''My daughter was punched in the eye and choked,'' said Kim Powers, whose 17-year-old daughter, Jessica, spent nearly three months at the school after being sent there by the producers of a television talk show, the Larry Elder Show, where she had appeared on two episodes dealing with unruly teens.
''She had a black eye,'' the mother said.
Show officials could not be reached for comment.
''I had no contact with her whatsoever,'' said Powers, who lives in Murfreesboro, Tenn. ``They were not sending her letters to me. And my letters were not going to her. They took them.''
Denise Smith, who is listed in corporate records as president of the company that operates Sister Soldier, did not return calls to the school for comment. Smith, who identified herself to parents as ''Major Smith,'' also was not at the school Tuesday afternoon.
Florida records show Smith has been arrested three times. The first two arrests -- a 1991 forgery charge and a 1996 car theft -- were dropped by prosecutors. Smith pleaded no contest to a March 1997 auto theft charge following the third arrest, and adjudication was withheld, records show.
On Tuesday, parents of the half-dozen girls housed at Sister Soldier received calls to pick up their children and take them home.
At about 3:30 p.m., 37-year-old Stephen Davis pulled up to the modest beige house and left with his 17-year-old daughter, Terri, who put a blue military uniform and black boots in the trunk of his car. He said Smith and a police detective called him earlier in the day.
''Major Smith just said the program was closing down and all the girls were going home,'' said Davis, who drove in from Tampa. ``We had to pick them up today.''
Terri told Davis that teens at Sister Soldier had been ''physically restrained when they [school staff] needed to'' -- but he said he is taking his daughter's claims ''with a grain of salt'' for now.
Davis said he found out about the program from the Internet.
The boarding school, at 3271 Glendale Blvd. in the Melrose Park neighborhood, was housed in a modest ranch-style home with peeling paint and white trim.
Windows in the house were equipped with bars on the inside. Walls in the living room appeared to be painted black or a very dark color.
Parents who enrolled their children paid an entry fee of $5,300, and $2,800 per month, according to the program's website and one of the parents.
Sister Soldier accepted girls aged 8 through 17.
''Female cadets accepted into our program reside in a rigorous, structured military environment,'' the website says. ``The military style program in conjunction with the emphasis on leadership develops informed citizens who are strengthened by discipline, understanding and citizenship.''
CLAIMS OF BEATINGS
One incident under investigation by child welfare investigators involves two girls who claim they were beaten after they tried to call their parents for help.
Shannon Guinn, 16, who lives with her mother in Pembroke Pines, went to Sister Soldier at the end of March after spending three days at a wilderness boot camp run by the school's parent company, South Florida-based JAM Youth Connection. After about two weeks, she called her mom on a cellphone she had borrowed.
'She said, `Please mommy, when can I come home?' '' said her mother, Cheryl Guinn.
Another girl, Jessica Powers, tried to call her family, but couldn't reach them.
Within minutes, the families say, Smith brought the two girls into the one room in the house that does not have a surveillance camera.
''She slapped me on my face, she threw me up against the wall and put me in a chokehold,'' Shannon said. ``She hit me in the face repeatedly. After the chokehold, she threw me on the floor and put her knee in my back.''
Two weeks later, Cheryl Guinn saw her daughter at a baptism held by a local pastor associated with the discipline-oriented school.
''Something about her jaw looked funny,'' the mother said. 'She said, `Mom, that's where I got hit in the face.' ''
Kim Powers said her daughter was sent home from Sister Soldier when operators said her daughter had become seriously ill.
Powers said the boarding school even took Jessica for a colonoscopy without calling the family for consent. Eventually, Jessica was diagnosed with a blocked bowel.
While at the military-style school, Jessica was forced to eat nothing but beets for days at a time, Powers said. On another occasion, she was limited to eating only oatmeal.
''Jessica ate beets for
breakfast, lunch and dinner,'' said Shannon, adding that Smith treated
Jessica particularly harshly.
Loophole let school avoid regulation
Neither the state nor the county regulates private boarding schools, and -- after complaints about a Broward facility -- some lawmakers say that situation needs changing.
When police and state child welfare authorities began receiving complaints about a small military school tucked in a modest Fort Lauderdale neighborhood, they wondered what government agency was overseeing the school.
They made a startling discovery: The boarding school, Sister Soldier Military Academy, was operating under everyone's radar.
Sister Soldier, like other private boarding schools, is not licensed by anyone in the city, county or state. It is not required to be.
''This is a loophole in the regulatory system that needs to be addressed,'' said Jack Moss, the Department of Children & Families' Broward administrator.
Child welfare officials became aware of the military school in recent weeks after the state's child abuse hot line received four reports that girls living there had been physically abused, sources say. On Tuesday, the school's operator abruptly shuttered the school, which enrolls girls ages 8-17 at a cost of $2,800 a month.
Denise Smith, who is listed in corporate records as president of Sister Soldier's parent company, JAM Youth Connection, did not return calls for comment.
Smith, who identified herself to parents as ''Major Smith,'' denied abusing any girls in an interview with WFOR, Channel 4. The girls, she said, were often ``disrespectful.''
''I've never hit anyone,'' Smith said.
``But parents do sign a waiver allowing me to restrain a cadet. It's unfortunate we had to close because we were providing a program that benefited these kids.''
The Florida Department of Education does not license private schools.
State law merely requires that private schools register with the state and report the number of children enrolled in their programs each year, a department spokesperson said.
''Private schools are not licensed, approved, accredited or regulated by the Department of Education, or the local education agency, as schools,'' the spokesperson said.
Likewise, the Department of Children & Families has no authority to oversee programs that designate themselves as boarding schools.
Moss said Florida statutes specifically exempt such programs from the DCF's purview. ``Our authority comes from state statutes, which specifically exempt boarding schools.''
Moss said he questioned whether Sister Soldier was, indeed, a boarding school since the academy's education programs are not located alongside the Sister Soldier residences, which are at 3271 Glendale Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale.
``One of the first questions I asked was: `Just because they call themselves a boarding school, does it mean they are?'
''I got a bunch of shoulder-shrugs,'' Moss added.
Fort Lauderdale city officials have looked into the boarding school as well.
Sister Soldier is located in a section of the city that was recently annexed from Broward County, said city spokesman David Hebert, and the area is still subject to county zoning codes. Under those codes, the house is in neighborhood zoned for single-family residences.
Under the county's code, which the city is enforcing in that neighborhood, the military school could operate in the neighborhood as a community residential facility under certain conditions: It would need to be at least 1,000 feet from another social service program or group home, and it would need to be licensed by the state, said Hebert.
''If they don't have a state license,'' Hebert said, they cannot consider themselves a community residential facility.
A DISTRESSED MOM
Hebert said officials in the city attorney's office are working closely with DCF to resolve the problem. ''We consider it a priority,'' he said. ``We will do what we need to do to ensure compliance with our laws.''
One parent who sent her 16-year-old daughter to the military academy said she was shocked to learn Sister Soldier was operating without state oversight.
''I thought they had to be regulated,'' said Kim Powers, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., whose daughter was sent to the school by a Los Angeles talk show, at the show's expense.
And at least two state lawmakers would like to see programs such as Sister Soldier come under some state agency's regulation.
''This is a glitch in regulation, and, obviously, this type of entity is falling through the cracks,'' said state Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who sits on the Senate's Children & Families Committee.
''We always talk about accountability. Obviously, there is no accountability for programs such as this,'' Rich added.
Rich said she would consider supporting legislation next year that would require boarding schools such as Sister Soldier to be licensed and regulated by some state agency. ``It sounds like this is an area where we need to have some additional regulation.''
Said state Sen. Walter G. ''Skip'' Campbell, a Tamarac Democrat who chairs the Children & Families Committee: ``If we need the Legislature to look at this, we will definitely look at it.''
''All these schools need to be regulated by somebody,'' Campbell added.
Abuse allegations at school investigated
A tiny boarding school for troubled girls in Fort Lauderdale -- once used by the juvenile justice system as an alternative to jail -- has closed as detectives investigate allegations that four students were abused, state and county officials said.
The sheriff's Child Protective Investigative Services has targeted the Sister Soldier boot camp school since the first child abuse allegation was leveled three weeks ago, said Broward Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Liz Calzadilla-Fiallo.
Details were not released other than there are four alleged victims, some living in this area and some out of state.
Denise Smith, president of the company that owns the school, did not respond to messages left with an answering service.
Since January 2001, the school has served a handful of girls at a time with drill instructors leading calisthenics, walking them through the county jail and counseling on anger management.
The inquiry could last one or two more months, but the sheriff's office has been told the school stopped operating out of a house at 3271 Glendale Blvd., Calzadilla-Fiallo said.
Smith had other contacts with the courts. She was arrested three times in the 1990s on forgery and theft allegations. The first two cases were dismissed. She pleaded no contest to grand theft of a vehicle but adjudication was withheld.
Fort Lauderdale officials also are investigating to determine whether the school violated zoning rules for single-family homes, said city spokesman David Hébert.
Sister Soldier was receiving referrals from the court system as well as its own clients six months after it opened in 2001, Smith said in a news story at the time.
The juvenile court system sent "several girls" to the school in 2001 but stopped once officials heard the school was charging the families as well as the courts, said Ron Ishoy, spokesman for the State Attorney's Office.
On Wednesday, Ishoy said, "After the state Department of Juvenile Justice began cutting their funding for diversionary programs, we looked out into the community to find suitable agencies to help keep the appropriate children out of the criminal justice system. [Juvenile Justice] officials looked at this particular program and approved them."
Sister Soldier is one of at least two programs operated by JAM Youth Connections of Fort Lauderdale, state records show. JAM also operates the co-ed Elite Leadership Military Academy in Fort Lauderdale. Elite's supervisor Theo Perez says his program is similar to Scared Straight.
State officials are wrestling with which agency is responsible for overseeing Sister Soldier. The Department of Children & Families has no jurisdiction over the school other than hiring the sheriff's department to investigate abuse allegations, said DCF spokeswoman Leslie Mann. She said the boot camp is not a group home but a boarding school under the purview of the state education department.
Sister Soldier is not registered with the state education department, said spokeswoman Cheryl Etters. JAM is not on the department's Web site as a boarding school or a private school.
"The theoretical question is ... when is something a group home and when is something a boarding school?" Mann said. "There's a very cloudy line."
Slew of calls drew police to school
Fort Lauderdale police confirmed they've joined welfare agents in probing complaints that girls at a boot camp-style school were abused.
Fort Lauderdale police have been called eight times since April to a Fort Lauderdale home operating as a private military school, including two visits in recent days to investigate allegations that a cadet had been beaten by a school employee.
Since April 18, Fort Lauderdale officers accompanied child abuse investigators with the Broward Sheriff's Office five times to the military school, 3271 Glendale Blvd., said Andy Pallen, a spokesman for the department. In Broward, BSO conducts child abuse probes under a contract with the Department of Children & Families.
Of the three other calls by police, one involved a May 13 trip by paramedics to check on a 17-year-old girl who had passed out, one involved a 16-year-old girl who was suffering an asthma attack May 11, and the other occurred on April 9, when officers were called to involuntarily commit a girl to a psychiatric hospital, Pallen said.
Sister Soldier Military Academy abruptly shut its doors Tuesday amid ongoing investigations into reports that girls enrolled there had been physically abused.
Fort Lauderdale zoning officials also had been studying whether the academy was in compliance with the city's zoning code.
''I went into the hospital the day I found out about my daughter,'' said Katie Bogle, a mother of two from Winter Park, Colo. ``They thought I was having a heart attack.''
Bogle's 15-year-old daughter, Unyque, spent three months at Sister Soldier, and told her mother she had been beaten twice by caretakers. ``She told me she was not beaten as much as the others. She kept her mouth shut. She kept her head down, and she did what she was supposed to do. She didn't complain and she didn't whine.''
Denise Smith, who is identified in corporate records as president of Sister Soldier's parent company, has not returned several calls for comment. Smith insisted that parents and children call her ``Major Smith.''
The army-style school enrolls girls considered behavioral problems ages 8-17 at a cost of $2,800 a month. The students at the school are called `cadets.'
Reports on the military school in The Herald have prompted calls by state lawmakers to close a loophole in Florida licensing laws that allows private boarding schools to operate without state regulation.
Two other parents, one from Pembroke Pines and another from Tennessee, have told The Herald their daughters told them they were beaten -- including blows to the face -- by Sister Soldier's ''major''. The girls told their mothers they were struck after trying to call home for help.
The most recent visits by police to Sister Soldier were on May 28 and May 30, Pallen said, when officers accompanied BSO child protective investigators looking into complaints received by the state child-abuse hot line.
Sources have told The Herald the May 28 visit followed a report to child welfare authorities that a girl at Sister Soldier had been beaten by a so-called ``drill instructor.''
A school instructor, who asked not to be identified, said she had seen the girl the next day.
''She had swollen lips and sores in her mouth,'' the instructor said. ``She had scars on her face, scars on her arm, and talked about her foot being sore.''
The girl told the employee that another drill instructor had dropped a ''log'' on her foot.
Cadets were forced to hold heavy logs in their arms for extended periods as a form of punishment, the employee told The Herald.
Bogle, the Colorado mom, said she saw the log during a short visit to the home the day after her daughter's birthday. When she asked another girl what the log was for, the girl began marching in a circle with the log in her arms. ''She said we have to carry this around for punishment,'' Bogle said.
Murfreesboro, Tenn., mother Kim Powers said her daughter, Jessica, claimed that she had been injured by the log, as well.
Parents interviewed by The Herald said they were asked to sign waivers giving up the right to sue Sister Soldier's parent company, JAM Youth Connection, if their children were injured.
A copy of the waivers, given to The Herald by Powers, warned parents that their children could be harmed if staff needed to restrain them.
''Physical action will be taken against your child, and to whatever extreme the staff feels necessary at that time, to protect anyone in harm's way,'' a ''disciplinary disclaimer'' states. ``Due to the level of force that may be used, there may be bodily injuries to your child.''
Parents who signed a liability waiver gave ``permission to physically handle and restrain their child during any of the company's functions, as the company feels needed.''
The parent ''understands participation will subject the child to risk and injuries, and companies will not be liable for medical expenses or other claims for damages or death,'' the waiver states.