A group of parents is suing a boot camp-style private school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, claiming the teachers there abused seven children without the parents’ knowledge in the name of turning young lives around.
Their complaint, filed this week in Milwaukee County circuit court, alleges seven elementary and middle school students enrolled at Right Step—a school program for some 200, mostly low-income students—were the victims of the organization’s structure and disciplinary system, one meant to instill self-control into students who have previously failed in a traditional school setting.
According to the complaint, in the 2014 fall semester, these students were: pushed, kicked, and punched; threatened and called derogatory names; forced to stay in smoke-filled rooms until they passed out; and exercised to exhaustion with limited food and water. The complaint goes on to list specific mistreatments by instructors. Instructors allegedly urinated on a student’s clothes, held a student on the ground by placing a foot on his back, forced a student to drink a beverage that the instructor had spit in, and regularly flipped them from their beds in the middle of the night. One student was made to lie in his vomit for half an hour, according to the complaint.
“[These children] were taken to a boot camp in central Wisconsin and physically abused and humiliated. Their parents had no idea that physical abuse and humiliation was part of the school’s program. They felt deceived by the school and were upset that they enrolled their kids in the school, thereby subjecting them to this abuse,” said Aaron DeKosky, the lawyer representing the three parents in their civil suit.
Calls by The Daily Beast to the school were returned by Right Step’s Rebecca Fitch—a named defendant in the suit. She said one of the defendants, Randy R. Martus, hadn’t worked with Right Step for three or four years, but she wasn’t familiar with the current case and couldn’t comment on the allegations. Fitch said a similar sounding case had been brought against the school last year.
Since its founding in 2006, Right Step Inc. has marketed itself as a lifeline to what its founders call Milwaukee’s “lost youth.” Its mission, as advertised on its website, has been “to develop the minds, bodies, and spirits of the community's most challenging youth, through discipline, and motivation toward positive outcomes.”
“Our kids have been weapon-carrying, drug-using habitual truants,” Fitch, Right Step’s director of education, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2008.
The boot camp and school are part of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program administered by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Government subsidies enable a large majority of the students to attend.
As such, the parents are also suing the state of Wisconsin and its education arm, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, arguing the extensive voucher program there uses public and taxpayer dollars to fund private, mostly religious and sometimes—as in this instance, critics say—unregulated schools, effectively turning the majority of the private institution public.
“The state does not require that schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program provide parents of prospective students with information on the school’s academic achievements or punishment practices,” DeKosky said.
Despite the advertised achievements of Right Step cadets, numerous studies of juvenile boot camps have found the “scared straight” model to be ineffective and claim the highly-structured routine and intense physical labor often results in a temporary obedience. Children often leave these programs more hostile and distrusting of authority figures than when they entered and most reoffended in short order—at similar rates to juveniles in traditional correctional institutions. These studies, however, are mostly for camps where juvenile offenders go to be reformed and then return to their normal lives. Right Step and other boot camps that also operate as schools and have students for years may have better success rates.
A promotional video for the school shows students—known as cadets—running military drills in the yard as well as receiving instruction in a classroom. Several members of the student body—90 percent of whom are at least three grades behind, according to a drill sergeant quoted in the video—offer testimonials of how the tough love of Right Step kept them off the streets, away from gangs and criminal activity.
Along with low graduation rates and test scores and high truancy rates, Milwaukee’s public school system boasts one of the largest black-white achievement gaps in the country.
In light of those abysmal statistics, there’s no denying that Milwaukee children—particularly the poor, black children Right Step primarily enrolls—are in need of quality educational alternatives. Whether Right Step is saving or harming the children entrusted to its care will be for the courts to decide.