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Monday, July 12, 1999 Published at 08:37 GMT 09:37 UK


World: Americas

American tearaways volunteer for discipline

Alpha Force: Discipline is at the core of the regime

By Home Affairs specialist Danny Shaw

The boys of the Alpha Force squadron are late for lunch and senior drill instructor Ronald Cusumano is not happy.

"Get that hat off inside the building. Fernandez! The order was put your stuff on your foot locker and get on line. Get down now! Knock me out 10."

Fernadez, a boy of 15, responds like a slave to his master. He lowers himself onto the floor, then levers himself up and down, counting each press-up under his breath.

In front of him and to his right and to his left, the other Alpha Force boys - all of them shaven-headed - stand to attention, arms to the sides of their army-issue camouflage fatigues, the heels of their spit-shined combat boots in line with a yellow strip on the floor.

Volunteers for discipline

This is the Eagle Academy, in central Florida. A collection of portacabins and hangar-like barracks in the grounds of Palm Beach county jail, it looks at first glance like some kind of boot camp or military school for teenage tearaways too young to go to an adult prison.


[ image: The boys receive an educational programme]
The boys receive an educational programme
In fact, it is a unique institution - an educational experiment. The 40 boys here have not been ordered here by a judge nor forced to attend by a parent or headteacher. They have decided to join up, for six months at a time, to change their lives, before they're caught up in crime or violence.

Nick Salabarra, 14, has been here for four months.

"The Eagle Academy is for kids who want to help themselves in life, who are on a downward spiral," he says. "I came to learn discipline, get better grades in school and more respect for adults, because I was lacking that."

Strict routine

For Nick, and the other young teenage recruits, discipline is at the core of the Eagle regime.


[ image: There are no luxuries in the Eagle Academy]
There are no luxuries in the Eagle Academy
They're woken from their bunks in the barracks at 0500 for an exercise session which includes a one mile run.

Next, comes a shower and toilet break, strictly monitored by the drill instructors, who are with them 24 hours a day.

Then they make their beds and tidy up their possesions: toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and deodorant neatly placed in foot lockers so well polished you can almost see your reflection.

Any misdemeanour - a button not done up, a word out of place - and the instructor will be two inches from a recruit's face, demanding 10 press-ups or 20 star jumps.

"It can get a little tough," says drill instructor Tracy Andrews, one of the four women officers in the camp.

"But some of the boys are from the streets and that's all they know. They need tough discipline."

Nick Salabarra agrees. "I was getting Ds and Fs in class at school because I never had the discipline to do homework by myself. Too lazy to do anything on my own. It's better here. They make you do it and have a scheduled time for it. It's tough discipline, but it's good for everyone."

On the verge of crime

Before they came here, the boys' lives were veering in all directions - truancy, drugs, petty crime.


[ image:
"It can get a little tough"
None had yet been convicted of a serious offence, but it was only a matter of time.

"They were very rebellious, did everything they wanted to do, their parents didn't have any control," says one of the Eagle's counsellors, Teresa Benbow.

"They were more in control of their parents than their parents were of them," she says. The regime at the Eagle, says Miss Benbow, is the "tough love" they desparately need to get them back on the rails.

Desire to change

Fourteen-year-old Eliezel Callazo was experimenting with drugs, and the habit was affecting his schoolwork and family life.

Like all the other recruits it was Eliezel's choice to come to the Eagle. "It was a big step," he says. "Most kids are too immature to realise they're doing wrong and wouldn't want to come here."

But with just six weeks to go until he completes the six-month course, Eliezel feels a sense of achievement for the first time in his life.

"It's helped me out a lot," he says. "It's very hard to get on with other kids without getting into fights, but you really accomplish something at the end, you get motivated with the drills, and as soon as you start doing good your parents will be happy for you."

A chance to shine

The maths teacher, retired US Navy captain Max Harrer, gives each boy the kind of individual tuition rarely available in high school, crouching down to help one boy when he puts his hand up to ask for help, ushering another to the whiteboard at the front of the room when he needs assistance.

"I've had an awful lot of students here who are exceptionally good students in terms of abilities and they've got a lot of weaknesses in terms of background," he says.

Hard to go home

The opportunity to make up lost ground in their studies is what spurs the boys on. Progress is rewarded with military-style ribbons, privileges and caps of different sizes. But by the end of their six months most of the recruits do the motivating themselves.

But officials in charge of the programme are aware that the hardest part for the boys is going home, back to their old school, old friends and old temptations.

For that reason, when they leave the Eagle, counsellors and staff offer three months "aftercare" - meetings with the boys and their parents, as well as regular phone calls.

Girls too

Initial results are promising. Since the Eagle was set up two years ago, around 120 boys have passed through its books. Only a handful have been in trouble after leaving.

The Palm Beach county school board and the local sheriff's office, who jointly fund the £1.3m programme, are so impressed they are expanding it. From next January, the Eagle will take girls.

But it will never be easy.

If hugs and kisses, tea and cosy pep talks could fix things, the boys wouldn't be here. What they need, says Max Harrer, the navy captain turned maths teacher, is to develop self-discipline.

"A lot of students here have had hugs and all that from their parents and have been running wild, completely out of control and a have a very, very, very tough mental attitude," he says.

"The warmth and affection just does not get to them. This type of approach shocks them back to their foundations."



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