Funding Is Denied

Bay County commissioners took some definitive action on the future of a local juvenile justice program.

Last week Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen presented the commission with his proposal for the new STAR Academy.

The military school-type program would replace the current Boot Camp, which is slated to close in May. It has been under fire since January 5 when 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson died.

The county pays about $500,000 a year to run the Boot Camp. McKeithen was hoping the county would continue to fund his new STAR Academy when the boot camp closes.

But commissioners Mike Nelson and Jerry Girvin had other ideas.

"If we set up a county run military school I don't think we can afford it. I think it's financially something we don't need to commit to right now.

”A STAR academy, I think there are so many similar groups, the PCMI, Emerald Academy, that we'd be duplicating effort."

County commissioners decided not to commit any money to any juvenile-type rehabilitation programs at this time.

The boot camp may be scheduled to close in May, but the camp is now empty. The last group of teens left the facility after their graduation Tuesday morning.

Nine teenagers walked out of the camp for the last time. The group is the camp's last graduating class.

As they looked back on the last six months these young men says they'll be leaving here with more than any of the previous classes.

Michael Cherry says he's learned some of life's greatest lessons at the boot camp.

"Education, discipline, the staff is some of the best people I have ever met. I've learned self discipline, put my priorities first, and not take anything for granted."

After six months, Cherry and eight other cadets graduated from the camp. He says the Martin Lee Anderson controversy doesn't tell the whole story about the facility, and a program he's grateful to have attended.

“I thank everybody that works here and helped us out, and a lot of good stuff going on in here. The news, ya’ll got it backwards."

He's not the only one with praises for the boot camp. Parents and relatives of the graduates say they've seen a change in the teens.

One of those is Shelia Jones, a relative of one of Tuesday’s graduates.

"He's doing much better. I think he’s going to be a lot better than what he used to be."

Because of the Anderson tragedy, the public has been focused on the physical aspects of the camp, but the teens spend the majority of their day in class.

Teachers say they learn two years worth of curriculum in the six months, but the teens and their parents say the most important lesson they've received is learning from their mistakes.

Trumel Brown is a graduate of the program.

“I think I've learned life isn't fair and it's not about me. I can't take things for granted. Things are going to happen to you not matter what. My education just went up and I'm proud of that,” he says.

His father is proud.

“I’m proud of him. I'm always proud of him, but for him to go through this, and I always tell him when I was a young man I did a lot of stuff. I just didn't get caught, so there is nothing wrong as long as he learns from his mistakes."

Now the camp is empty and the state is not sending any more teens to the facility.