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

Justin Waltz was in constant trouble at MMA. He stole a phone credit card from another cadet, and he and his friends charged $2,000 worth of calls on it. He told his stepmother that older cadets beat him. This fall, the school let him withdraw after he badly beat another cadet. When Mrs. Waltz arrived to pick him up, Justin was gone.

"I found him myself with no help from them," she says. "It was a big waste of money. They said they had plenty of adult supervision, but it was kids supervising other kids. He's worse now than when he went in. He's a little stronger, a little bigger, and a little meaner."

Waltz is not an isolated case, according to former drill instructors, who say many of the cadets in their barracks were on probation or parole. One cadet from the island of St. Croix was sent to MMA by court order this year after he was caught with a sawed-off shotgun.

A look at the profiles of the cadets housed in the Delta barracks in 1995 reveals that the overwhelming majority of the kids had a host of problems, according to school records. A 14-year-old boy was hospitalized the previous year for severe depression. He threatened to kill himself and his parents. He suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had had behavior problems since first grade. Housed in the same barracks was an 18-year-old who had been arrested for possession of marijuana. Also in the Delta Company was a boy on probation for unspecified charges who had a history of temper outbursts and classroom disturbances, according to brief, one-sentence histories of the boys, called entry profiles, given to the drill instructors.

In eight cases, according to school records, boys in Delta had been accepted before their grades had even arrived--so much for stringent admission policies at MMA.

No wonder the drill instructors have such an impossible job. A former drill instructor, who requested anonymity, stated in a sworn affidavit that "at times the Marine Military Academy was like a reform school, but without the resources and knowledge that even reform schools have. I don't believe you can leave kids in charge of kids, especially given some of the problems these boys have had...I knew that beatings, inappropriate sexual behavior, drug usage, and inappropriate hazing occurred at the Marine Military Academy. I tried to protect the kids in my company from these events, and tried to dismiss the boys who did these things."

For years, the drill instructors made recommendations to the administration on how to improve the school. They requested additional support in the form of assistant drill instructors, a recommendation that was echoed in the 1994 study conducted by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools visiting committee. That recommendation was ignored.

The ratio of adults to cadets varies among boarding schools. At New Mexico Military Institute it is between 40 and 60 cadets to one adult. At MMA, the ratio rarely falls below 70 to 1. Drill instructors live with their wives in an apartment on the barracks' first floor. When a drill instructor takes time off, he usually has another cover for him, which means there are times when instructors are supervising as many as 140 boys.

The drill instructors are like surrogate parents, responsible for discipline and making sure the cadets do their work. While the cadets are in classes, the drill instructors wade through a heavy load of paperwork and spend much time answering phone calls from concerned parents.

"If you have 35 to 40 kids on a floor, ideally what you would want is two adults living on either end of the floor," says Mike Sheppard, a Dallas consultant who advises parents on out-of-state military and boarding schools. "One couple for 80 kids is too much. It's too hard on the couple, and it's too much responsibility on the kids."

The drill instructors had also asked for the school to bring in drug-sniffing dogs to help control the rampant drug problem, but the school refused. This fall, MMA, which relies on random drug testing, expelled 32 students for drugs. In contrast, the New Mexico Military Institute uses drug dogs, and 80 percent of the student population submits to voluntary drug testing. Last year, they kicked out two students for drugs.

Dan Alfaro is a Corpus Christi lawyer who once believed so strongly in the precepts of MMA that he paid tuition for seven cadets at the school in the last decade. But he began to grow concerned about an environment he saw becoming increasingly unsafe and unhealthy. Two years ago, he wrote Glasgow a letter, offering to pay for a security guard to patrol the campus "from midnight to 0500 hours" to help the one staff duty officer the school had patrolling each night. Alfaro was troubled by reports that a cadet had sodomized another in the middle of the night. He also learned of a boy who had been brutalized by a gang of cadets who beat him, stripped him naked, and tied him to the flagpole.

"There needed to be more supervision at night," Alfaro says. "The poor DIs can't stay up all night and work all day."

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