The Few, the Proud, the Battered

At Harlingen's Marine Military Academy, the line between discipline and abuse is sometimes as thin as a knife's edge

The plebes are now run by drill instructors. The plebe system is still grueling, and even drill instructors are known for punishing an entire squad for the sins of a single cadet. At the end of the plebe period, the plebes officially become cadets and are awarded a metal emblem to be worn on their caps. Many cadets are afraid to wear their pins, because upperclassmen are known to pound their hands on the pins--leaving bruises and red welts--in a brutal, forbidden tradition called tapping in.

Reveille is blown at 6 a.m., and the cadets are out the door in eight minutes, provided they've made their bed to perfection and pass inspection. They run a few miles before breakfast, then spend the rest of the day in school. The academic and military departments are run separately. Studying is mandatory from 7 p.m. to 9 or 9:30. p.m. Lights are out at 10 p.m. They are not allowed to sit on their beds all day, until it is time to go to sleep.

On paper, say parents, the school looks great, although it clearly is not for everybody. "And it would be great," says the grandmother of the Houston cadet who claims he was sexually abused, "if they ran the place like they say they do."

The Marine Military Academy has its share of success stories. These cadets are frequently asked to give testimonials at MMA recruiting sessions held around the state.

Parents hear from boys such as Cadet Clair Woertendyke, who left a Pleasant Grove middle school with a 0.83 grade-point average after eighth grade. After four years at MMA, where he starred on the school's winning football team, the Leathernecks, he pulled his grades up to a 3.0, according to a transcript of a recruiting session recorded by a parent several years ago.

But the cadets are careful not to sugarcoat their experiences for people who attend the recruiting sessions. At this particular session, Cadet Matthew Brigance, who was also from Dallas, warns the parents in the audience that the military school is not for everyone. "Parents who can't control their sons at home figure that they'll send them down here and let some 15- to 17-year-old cadet try and discipline them. That can make a situation better, or it can, in most kids, make it a lot worse. Because, I mean, if they're not going to listen to people that are closest to them and the ones that care about them more, they're not really going to respond to people that are total strangers that really could care less, aside from trying to get the job done."

Barry Zale is one of MMA's staunchest defenders. He believes the school has nothing to fear from the recent spate of lawsuits filed against it. A trustee of the academy for the last 10 years, Zale attended MMA for his senior year in the early '70s in order to get "a better education. I didn't have the skills and discipline I needed for college," says Zale, who had attended Dallas public schools.

Three years ago, he decided to send his 13-year-old son, Ben, there. He was a C student at St. Mark's School and suffered from low self-esteem. "He obviously needed something I wasn't giving him--self-discipline," Zale says. "I felt the experience at MMA would help him out. I am very, very proud to say I was right. I don't think kids are supposed to like MMA, but he's thanked me for sending him. He's carrying a 4.0 average or better, and he's a real mensch. He came home for Thanksgiving and was a real pleasure to be around. I really trust this kid, and I don't know many parents of 16-year-olds who can say that."

Zale insists that MMA is not a "barbaric place at all." Although he has read the affidavits in the class-action suit and finds them disturbing--"They make you want to cry," he says--he does not believe they are true. If the school were plagued with so many problems, he insists, it would not attract such high-caliber trustees. As examples, he cites Robert Lutz, chief operating officer of the Chrysler Corp., and Harlingen Mayor Bill Card, who served as commandant of cadets at the school.

Having spent so much time at the school over the years, Zale says, he would have known about the problems if they existed. But according to an affidavit of the former trustee who requested anonymity, the school has taken certain steps to block trustees' access to information.

"Another example which drove me away from the school was what I refer to as the 'cover-up' bylaw in the bylaws of the school," the trustee writes. "This was the bylaw that President Glasgow got the board to pass, which prohibited board members from talking to the staff or the faculty. This was further designed to keep the board in the dark in my opinion...The school has a way of hushing things up so that such news never becomes public."

In a school of 500 boys, there are going to be problems, Zale says. But when they are brought to the administration's attention, he insists, they are dealt with. A few years ago, when it received numerous complaints about the brutality of the plebe system, for instance, the school replaced the student plebe handlers with drill instructors. It also shortened the plebe system by several weeks--a source of frustration for the older cadets, who think the newcomers are getting off too easy.

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