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

But critics of the school insist that the student leaders are still given too much authority, which can be dangerous in a school where a culture of intimidation and brutality is so ingrained.

Take, for example, the story of Brandon Whiddon, a 14-year-old Houston boy who was severely beaten in the face by a football player last May. A school coach ordered the football player to discipline Whiddon, whose unforgivable crime was dribbling a basketball when he wasn't supposed to.

At the end of gym class, physical education coach Mike Fass ordered the class to put up the basketballs. Whiddon, an exemplary student with a penchant for being a class clown, dribbled his ball on the way. Angered, the coach told him to drop and give him 25 pushups, according to a statement Whiddon gave the Cameron County district attorney. The coach yelled to hurry up, and Whiddon wasn't sure he was talking to him or the class. When he asked for clarification, the coach picked him up by the back of his shirt and dragged him into the weight room. He instructed Jonathan Kyle Chapman, a 17-year-old football player who weighed close to 200 pounds, to "take care of him."

Chapman ordered Whiddon to do 25 push-ups. After 16, Chapman told him he wasn't doing them right and to start over. When the boy protested, Chapman took off his weight-lifting belt and slapped Whiddon across the back. At that point, the coach walked back in, and Chapman told him he was going to handle it. Chapman began pushing Whiddon into another room. Whiddon pushed back, and Chapman pummeled the boy, who stood a foot shorter than him, in the face and head as he cowered in the corner. In a statement Chapman wrote, he claimed he hit Whiddon in retaliation for hitting him first.

Whiddon reported the incident up the chain of command and was told to keep it quiet, that the school would handle it, he says. A few hours later, when Whiddon's drill instructor saw his face, he told him to call his grandmother Polly Hawkins. She called the police, who found Whiddon's injuries--a swollen face, bruises, and a concussion--serious enough to take him to the hospital. Hawkins flew down to Harlingen the next day. After talking to several academy staff--one of whom told her he didn't believe anything cadets tell him--she withdrew her grandson from the school.

The academy fired the coach immediately, but did not expel Chapman until months later, after he threatened a teacher.

"When I have to fear for my grandson' s life, something is wrong," says Hawkins. "I agree with a structured environment. The Marines look so handsome in their uniforms. You have a vision of disciplined young men with good values. But I sent him into a den of thieves and thugs."

Sadly, the characterization of the cadets as thugs and thieves may not be much of an exaggeration. In the last six years, people close to the academy began noticing an alarming trend. The school was accepting an increasing number of students with very troubling pasts. Some had severe emotional problems; others had criminal backgrounds.

Two new barracks opened in the early 1990s, increasing enrollment from 350 to more than 500 students, achieved in part by allowing eighth graders into the school for the first time. One former trustee believes that the once-stringent admission requirements eroded because the school was under financial pressure from an expansive building program the school undertook. Since the early 1990s, the school has erected or renovated a half-dozen new buildings, and a large student center is under construction.

The school has an image of being very selective about its enrollment. Harlingen Police Chief Jim Scheopner, who attends monthly community prayer breakfasts at the school, says that the school "only takes the best and the brightest, unlike other military schools." The fact is, the school admits almost everyone who applies, according to a 1994 report by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the school's accrediting agency. At the time, the agency found the school in violation of several standards. When the school did not rectify the problems for three years, the agency placed it on probation this spring, then moved it up to "warned" status this fall after the school finally hired a full-time counselor and improved its testing procedures.

In a letter to a school benefactor concerned about what he saw as the diminishing quality of the cadet corps, Glasgow assured him that the quality of the present corps exceeds that of any class during the last 11 years. "There is not another private military academy in the United States that has tighter admission requirements than we have today."

Barry Zale claims that boys with serious problems and criminal histories are not candidates for MMA--"unless a parent is not being truthful," he says. "But once their background is found out, they're thrown out."

Then how do they explain Justin Waltz's presence at the academy? According to Teresa Waltz, Justin's stepmother, the boy was in serious trouble with the law in Huntsville when he was admitted to MMA for the fall 1996 class and attended through early fall 1997. Justin had been arrested on charges of burglarizing several houses and of aggravated assault on a child--facts MMA was aware of when his stepmother contacted them, she says. "They told me they would take him before he was convicted," says Waltz. "So we made a deal with the prosecutor that he wouldn't prosecute him if we sent him to MMA. MMA said they could straighten him out."

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