A 14-year-old girl's death at a South Dakota boot camp for juvenile offenders has sparked an FBI investigation and fueled a debate over whether harsh, military-style camps are the right way to rehabilitate troubled teenagers.
The FBI said Wednesday it had launched an investigation into the treatment of juvenile inmates assigned to the state-run South Dakota State Training School, which operates a girls' boot camp. Gina Score died at the boot camp here on July 21 during a forced long-distance run just two days after entering the program as a convicted shoplifter.
Since Score's death, state investigators and parents of inmates at the boot camp have alleged that other girls were injured by being shackled, handcuffed and dragged on endurance runs until blood soaked their shoes.
FBI supervisory special agent David Heller said the bureau and the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division were looking into possible violations of civil rights laws by law enforcement employees.
Across the United States, there are more than 50 boot camps housing about 4,500 juveniles as part of state correctional programs, according to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a San Francisco-based think tank. The programs are aimed at reforming youthful offenders with rigorous physical training and strict discipline.
"When you create a system where you bully kids, there's a risk of it turning into abuse," said Larry Brendtro, president of Reclaiming Youth International, a group that questions the boot-camp concept.
Critics argue that the harsh treatment meted out at boot camps can cause injuries to inmates and subjects children with budding criminal tendencies to physical and emotional abuse that can push them toward rather than away from violent acts.