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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

By Ann Zimmerman

published: January 08, 1998

At 3 a.m. on a humid night in early October, Gabriel Cortez's screams awoke his fellow cadets in the Bravo Company barracks at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen. Boys rushed into Cortez's darkened room to find the 18-year-old high school senior soaked in blood and lying in his lower bunk bed, his throat slit almost ear to ear. His 13-year-old roommate, who caught a glimpse of the attackers as they fled, lay motionless in his top bunk, afraid to move. The cadet company commander raced downstairs to summon drill instructor Mike Pruitt -- the only adult in charge of the 72 boys in the barracks. Pruitt dialed 911, and the police and an ambulance arrived within minutes. Cortez was taken to a local hospital, where it took 28 stitches to close the deep gash on the cadet's neck. A week passed before he felt well enough to return to classes at the school, which has a reputation for being among the most rigorous military academies in the country.

Within days, police arrested 17-year-old roommates Jeremy Jensen and Christopher Boze, after several cadets identified at least one of them as the person they saw fleeing the room the night of the attack. Jensen and Boze were corps leaders at the academy with almost spotless records, a fact that made the slashing that much more inconceivable. Although the two teenagers were indicted on December 19 on charges of attempted murder, no motive has emerged for the attack, and prosecutors have refused to discuss their case.

Except for the thick, leathery scar that encircles his neck, Cortez, a round-faced boy of medium build, with large dark eyes and cocoa-colored skin, has healed -- at least outwardly. But the damage the attack has inflicted on the school's once-stellar reputation may be harder to repair.

The Marine Military Academy's top brass and staunch supporters -- its board boasts high-profile and high-powered businessmen, including Hugh McColl Jr., chairman of NationsBank Corp., and Barry Zale, a scion of the Zale jewelry-store family -- tried to assure parents and the public that the slashing was an isolated and anomalous incident. But in the months since the attack, an unsettling picture of the academy has begun to emerge.

The school was founded and is run by former Marines, and in its promotional literature and recruiting seminars it is described as a college-preparatory school that teaches boys with "good character" to be leaders through a military regimen of strict rules and discipline. Hazing and instruction through intimidation are forbidden, as are drugs, alcohol and tobacco, according to the school handbook.

But in reality, say former cadets and their parents, drugs, alcohol and computer-generated pornography are rampant. The school, they say, more closely resembles a chapter out of Lord of the Flies than a high school version of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

They say it is a place where older cadets -- ages range from 12 to 20 -- frequently misuse their authority to savagely berate and beat younger cadets -- sometimes with the permission of staff -- and where younger cadets live in fear of retaliation if they report the misdeeds of their higher-ranking brethren. Inside the wrought-iron gates of the academy, say former drill sergeants, deans and trustees, is a dangerous mix of too many cadets with serious emotional and behavioral problems and too little adult supervision and counseling. Drill instructors, who are on duty seven days a week, 24 hours a day, are expected to keep as many as 80 boys in line.

Disgruntled parents claim the staff hides or minimizes the boys' accusations, telling them their sons are exaggerating in order to be taken home or that they deserved whatever beatings they got. Staff members have dismissed physical and sexual assaults as innocent roughhousing. "Boys will be boys, after all," parents repeatedly are told.

The Cortez slashing brought into sharp relief what many former cadets had been trying to tell people for years -- that a climate of violence and depravity pervades the academy. For the last two years, Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyer Arch McColl has been investigating cadets' allegations of mental, physical and sexual abuse at the school. In November, McColl filed a class-action lawsuit against the MMA on behalf of 11 anonymous cadets who claim they were subjected to varying degrees of hazing and abuse. The suit, which was filed in Brownsville, also accuses the school of fraud and deception and seeks a full refund of the cadets' tuition, as well as actual and punitive damages.

Academy officials refused to be interviewed for this story. But in a news release issued shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the MMA said, "Once specific allegations are made known to us through the appropriate legal process, we will be able to address each of them. Until more information is forthcoming, the academy will not respond, but stand [sic] ready to defend its excellent reputation of providing an environment conducive to learning and of building boys into men."

Most of the cadets included in the suit have filled out sworn affidavits describing conditions at the school, which McColl has not made available to the academy. (Copies of the affidavits were provided to this reporter with the names blacked out, but some of the plaintiffs agreed to allow their names to be used in this story.) These affidavits, coupled with interviews with the former cadets, offer a chilling glimpse of life at the Marine Military Academy.

One former cadet, who now attends Berkner High School in Richardson, outside of Dallas, claims he was made to do pushups on gravel laced with glass, which made his fingers bleed. He says he was cursed frequently by cadet officers and drill instructors who called the boys "maggots" and "shit-for-brains." He witnessed weaker boys being hazed regularly but was punished when he came to their aid. On one occasion, he says, his roommate was awakened by three boys who put a powerful liniment called Atomic Bomb in his anus and sat on him until it burned.

Another, John Crumby of Dallas, who attended the MMA in 1993, says seven cadets beat him in the head, stomach and testicles with pillowcases stuffed with combination locks until he passed out. He suffered a broken nose and a hairline fracture of the jaw, and was in such pain he had to be carried to the infirmary, where he remained for two weeks. Another time, Crumby claims, a drill instructor caught him with a pack of cigarettes and made him eat the pack and wash it down with a glass of hot water. He then forced Crumby to do intense exercises -- a punishment called physical training -- until he vomited. Crumby joined the lawsuit recently after his grandparents read about it in the newspaper.

The number of plaintiffs in the class-action suit has grown to 29 since it was filed, and calls continue to come in almost daily to McColl's office from former cadets and their parents who are interested in joining. Dallas lawyer Mark Ticer says he is preparing to file another rash of lawsuits soon. He represents families from Dallas and Houston who allege their teenage sons were physically and sexually abused at the MMA during fall 1995.

A Dallas youth Ticer represents, who was 13 when he attended the MMA, claims in a sworn affidavit that several older cadets beat him in his room on at least four occasions. Once they bound him with a webbed belt and whipped him with clothes hangers; one of the cadets choked him until he passed out and threatened to kill him if he "narced" on him. A friend of the boy's at the school, a Houstonian who was 14 years old at the time, told Harlingen police an older cadet tried to force his penis into the 14-year-old's mouth and make him drink a cup full of semen.

Kay Wayne, the mother of the Dallas boy, has been on a crusade for the last two years to expose the MMA's darker side. Like many other parents, she was seduced by the school's spit-and-polish image and the seemingly clean-cut cadets with their impeccable manners and crisp, handsome uniforms. She hoped sending her son there would put him on a fast track to a military academy, which had always been his dream.

A single mother, Wayne sacrificed to send her son to the academy, working two jobs to afford the approximately $17,000 yearly tuition. And she is sacrificing still, this time to afford the psychological counseling her son has needed since he returned home.

By its nature, military school is supposed to be tough. It is frequently a last resort for kids in need of a serious attitude adjustment. So it might be easy to discount the horror stories boys tell about the MMA as trumped-up tales from kids who just couldn't cut it. But there is support for the contention that the MMA is a troubled place. Last spring, the academy came dangerously close to losing its accreditation after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools took issue with its testing procedures and lack of a full-time certified guidance counselor. At least once in the last two years, the state director for the accrediting body had to speak to the MMA about a hazing incident.

People with intricate knowledge of the school's inner workings say its troubles stem from financial pressures placed on the academy from its recent building campaign, which led the school to aggressively increase enrollment while lowering admissions standards. These conditions result in stress for the cadets, which is exacerbated by the apparent callousness to cadets' complaints on the part of the administration.

If even a portion of what the cadets say is true, then dismissing the boys' stories may have compounded the problems and may be part of the reason life at the MMA spun so desperately out of control.

A former Air Force flight school hard by the Harlingen airport, the Marine Military Academy sits on 142 manicured acres dotted by palm trees. On a Sunday afternoon in mid-December, the campus was eerily still, with most students inside their barracks studying for finals.

Everywhere around the school are visible reflections of the Marine Corps. On a field outside the gates, next to the academy gift shop and museum, with its books of Marine lore, battle photographs and recruitment posters, sits the original plaster model of the famous Iwo Jima War Memorial -- six Marines planting an American flag -- from which the bronze statue in Arlington National Cemetery was cast.

The school sits at the juncture of Marine Drive and Iwo Jima Boulevard. On a placard at the school's entrance is the Marine Corps slogan semper fidelis -- "always faithful." The ROTC program is sponsored by the Marine Corps, and the cadets' uniforms of pressed green pants, khaki shirts and dress blues are modified versions of those worn by Marines. Part of the school's creed proclaims: "I will wear my uniform proudly and in doing so, uphold the standards established by the United States Marine Corps."

The school's logo of an anchor, globe and rope is almost identical to the Marine Corps's emblem -- so much so that several years ago the Corps requested that the academy change it. The logo was changed, but almost imperceptibly, a fact that so angered a longtime trustee, who requested anonymity for this story, that he cited it as one of several deceptions on the school's part that made him quit the board in disgust, according to his affidavit for McColl's class-action suit.

The truth is that the academy is in no way officially affiliated with the Marine Corps -- a fact noted in tiny print in the academy's literature. But as the school's president, Major General Harold G. Glasgow, noted a few years ago in a feature story in The Dallas Morning News, "If you take the name Marine out of our title, we will have a loss in the interest in the academy."

Indeed, many parents send their children to the school because they believe it is part of the Marine Corps. Actually, only 20 percent of the approximately 500-member student body is interested in pursuing a military career, and the school misrepresents how much pull it has with the country's collegiate military academies. In its brochure, the MMA claims it "provides more students to the U.S. Naval Academy than any other source, except for the president. MMA can award six appointments per year, whereas a congressman can only award two."

In reality, the academy, like many other military prep schools, can only nominate candidates to compete for highly coveted appointments, according to the Naval Academy Foundation in Annapolis. Last year, the Marine Military Academy saw five or six of its students go on to attend the Naval Academy, West Point or the U.S. Air Force Academy. In contrast, the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, which has twice the MMA's enrollment, sent 120 students to the academies.

What is not an exaggeration, however, is the way the academy mirrors the Marines in its no-nonsense, rigorous approach to training and discipline. One of the school's advertisements shows a drill instructor in a Smokey-the-Bear hat, nose-to-nose with a new recruit, whom he is chewing out. The caricature is not far from the mark.

"The drill instructors at MMA are former Marines who just can't get over it," says a former academy dean, a retired Marine himself who believes the military approach to training young boys is too harsh. "The time-honored techniques and traditions of the Marines work when you take 18- and 20-year-olds, send them to boot camp and teach them how to kill, but not during the formative, delicate years of adolescence."

Life at the academy begins with a three-week plebe system, in which new cadets learn the numerous regulations contained in a 72-page handbook called The Right Guide. It starts the second they kiss their parents good-bye, meet their drill instructor and get their uniforms.

"You're basically degraded verbally for three weeks, with the only break being in the classroom," according to former cadet Rett Gray of Houston. "They have to beat you down to nothing. I remember hearing, 'It doesn't matter who you are at home, because here you are a piece of shit. You're all equally worthless to me.' "

In recent interviews, Glasgow admits that part of the indoctrination consists of harshly tearing the plebes down, but says it is done for the purpose of rebuilding them into disciplined officers and gentlemen. And it's true that every cadet interviewed for this story, even those most disgruntled, still refers to his elders as "sir" and "ma'am."

The plebes learn to march and drill with a rifle, and by the end of the second day must memorize a dozen symbols of military rank. Plebes are forbidden to look anyone in the eye and must ask permission for everything, including to begin eating their meals. They must brace against the nearest wall and stand at attention for anyone with rank who passes by them. They have no privileges, must stay in on weekends and cannot call home. They are allowed to write, but in recruiting sessions, staff members warn parents not to open those letters. "There won't be anything good in it," Master Sergeant John McLaughlin told a group of Dallas parents a few years ago, according to a transcript of the meeting. " 'Mom, I love you, get me out of here, I have died and went to hell!' "

Until recently, the plebe system at the MMA was run by older students called handlers, who often abused their authority, putting plebes through punishing physical exercise that would cause them to collapse, then chastising them for collapsing. Gray, who attended the MMA in 1994 and '95, says his handler took sadistic pleasure in making the plebes do pushups on their knuckles on rocks "because it would make them bleed, and he would say, 'You like to bleed. If you want to be a Marine, you gotta bleed.' "

The plebes are now indoctrinated by drill instructors. The system is still grueling, and even drill instructors have been known to punish an entire squad for the sins of a single cadet. At the end of the indoctrination period, the plebes officially become cadets and are awarded a metal emblem to be worn on their caps. Many cadets are afraid to wear their pins, because upperclassmen are known to pound their hands on the pins, leaving bruises and red welts, in a brutal, forbidden tradition called "tapping in."

Reveille is blown at 6 a.m., and the cadets are out the door in eight minutes, provided they've made their beds to perfection and passed inspection. They run a few miles before breakfast, then spend the rest of the day in school. The academic and military departments are run separately. Studying is mandatory from 7 p.m. to 9 or 9:30 p.m. Lights are out at 10. Cadets are not allowed to sit on their beds all day, until it is time to go to sleep.

On paper, say parents, the school looks great, although it clearly is not for everybody. "And it would be great," says the grandmother of the Houston cadet who claims he was sexually abused, "if they ran the place like they say they do."

The Marine Military Academy has its share of success stories. These exemplary cadets are frequently asked to give testimonials at MMA recruiting sessions held around the state.

Parents hear from boys such as Clair Woertendyke, who left a Pleasant Grove middle school after eighth grade with a 0.83 grade-point average. At the MMA, where Woertendyke starred on the school's winning football team, the Leathernecks, he pulled his grades up to a 3.0, according to a transcript of a recruiting session recorded by a parent several years ago.

But the cadets are careful not to sugarcoat their experiences for people who attend the recruiting sessions. At this particular session, cadet Matthew Brigance, who was also from Dallas, warned the parents in the audience that the military school is not for everyone. "Parents who can't control their sons at home figure that they'll send them down here and let some 15- to 17-year-old cadet try and discipline them. That can make a situation better, or it can, in most kids, make it a lot worse. Because, I mean, if they're not going to listen to people that are closest to them and the ones that care about them more, they're not really going to respond to people that are total strangers that really could care less, aside from trying to get the job done."

Barry Zale is one of the MMA's staunchest defenders. He believes the school has nothing to fear from the recent spate of lawsuits filed against it. A trustee of the academy for the last ten years, Zale attended the MMA for his senior year in the early '70s in order to get "a better education."

"I didn't have the skills and discipline I needed for college," says Zale, who had attended public schools in Dallas.

Three years ago, he decided to send his 13-year-old son Ben to the MMA. Ben was a "C" student at St. Mark's School and suffered from low self-esteem. "He obviously needed something I wasn't giving him -- self-discipline," Zale says. "I felt the experience at MMA would help him out. I am very, very proud to say I was right. I don't think kids are supposed to like MMA, but he's thanked me for sending him. He's carrying a 4.0 average or better, and he's a real mensch. He came home for Thanksgiving and was a real pleasure to be around. I really trust this kid, and I don't know how many parents of 16-year-olds can say that."

Zale insists that the MMA is not "a barbaric place at all." Although he has read the affidavits in the class-action suit and finds them disturbing -- "They make you want to cry," he says -- he does not believe they are true. If the school were plagued with so many problems, he insists, it would not attract such high-caliber trustees. As examples, he cites Robert Lutz, chief operating officer of the Chrysler Corporation, and Harlingen Mayor Bill Card, who served as commandant of cadets at the school.

Having spent so much time at the school over the years, Zale says, he would have known about the problems if they existed. But according to the former trustee who gave an affidavit for McColl's suit, the school has taken certain steps to block trustees' access to information.

"Another example which drove me away from the school was what I refer to as the 'cover-up' bylaw in the bylaws of the school," the trustee writes. "This was the bylaw that president Glasgow got the board to pass, which prohibited board members from talking to the staff or the faculty. This was further designed to keep the board in the dark, in my opinion ... The school has a way of hushing things up so that such news never becomes public."

In a school of 500 boys, there are going to be problems, Zale says. But when they are brought to the administration's attention, he insists, they are dealt with. A few years ago, when the school received numerous complaints about the brutality of the plebe system, the student plebe handlers were replaced with drill instructors. The academy also shortened the plebe system by several weeks -- a source of frustration for the older cadets, who think the newcomers are getting off too easy.

But critics of the school insist that the student leaders are still given too much authority, which can be dangerous in a school where a culture of intimidation and brutality is so ingrained.

Take, for example, the story of Brandon Whiddon, a 14-year-old Houston boy who was severely beaten in the face by a football player last May. A school coach ordered the football player to discipline Whiddon, whose unforgivable crime was dribbling a basketball when he wasn't supposed to.

At the end of gym class, physical education coach Mike Fass ordered the class to put up the basketballs. Whiddon, an exemplary student with a penchant for being a class clown, dribbled his ball on the way. Angered, the coach told him to drop and give him 25 pushups, according to a statement Whiddon gave the Cameron County district attorney. The coach yelled to hurry up, but Whiddon wasn't sure whether he was talking to him or the class. When Whiddon asked for clarification, the coach picked him up by the back of his shirt and dragged him into the weight room. He instructed Jonathan Kyle Chapman, a 17-year-old football player who weighed close to 200 pounds, to "take care of him."

Chapman ordered Whiddon to do 25 pushups. After the boy had done 16, Chapman told him he wasn't doing them right and ordered him to start over. When Whiddon protested, Chapman took off his weight-lifting belt and slapped Whiddon across the back. At that point, the coach walked back in, and Chapman told him he was going to handle it. Chapman began pushing Whiddon into another room. Whiddon pushed back, and Chapman pummeled the boy, who stood a foot shorter than him, in the face and head as he cowered in the corner. In a statement Chapman wrote, he claimed he hit Whiddon in retaliation for Whiddon hitting him first.

Whiddon reported the incident up the chain of command but was told to keep it quiet, that the school would handle it, he says. A few hours later, when Whiddon's drill instructor saw his face, he told the boy to call his grandmother, Polly Hawkins. She phoned the police, who found Whiddon's injuries -- a swollen face, bruises and a concussion -- serious enough to take him to the hospital. Hawkins flew down to Harlingen the next day. After talking to several academy staff -- one of whom told her he didn't believe anything cadets tell him -- she withdrew her grandson from the school.

The academy fired the coach immediately, but did not expel Chapman until months later, after he threatened a teacher.

"When I have to fear for my grandson's life, something is wrong," says Hawkins. "I agree with a structured environment. The Marines look so handsome in their uniforms. You have a vision of disciplined young men with good values. But I sent him into a den of thieves and thugs."

Sadly, the characterization of the cadets as thugs and thieves may not be much of an exaggeration. In the last six years, people close to the academy began noticing an alarming trend. The school was accepting an increasing number of students with very troubling pasts. Some had severe emotional problems; others had criminal backgrounds.

With the opening of two new barracks in the early 1990s, enrollment grew from 350 to more than 500 students. One former trustee believes that the once-stringent admission requirements eroded because the school was under financial pressure from an expansive building program. Since the early 1990s, the academy has erected or renovated a half-dozen buildings, and a large student center is under construction.

The academy has an image of being very selective about its enrollment. Harlingen Police Chief Jim Scheopner, who attends monthly community prayer breakfasts at the school, says that the MMA "only takes the best and the brightest, unlike other military schools." The fact is that the school admits almost everyone who applies, according to a 1994 report by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the school's accrediting agency. At the time, the agency found the academy in violation of several standards. Because the MMA did not rectify the problems for three years, the agency placed the school on probation this past spring, then moved it up to "warned" status this fall after the school finally hired a full-time counselor and improved its testing procedures.

In a letter to a school benefactor concerned about what he saw as the diminishing quality of the cadet corps, Glasgow assured him that the quality of the present corps exceeds that of any class during the last 11 years. "There is not another private military academy in the United States that has tighter admission requirements than we have today," he wrote.

Barry Zale claims that boys with serious problems and criminal histories are not candidates for the MMA -- "unless a parent is not being truthful," he says. "But once their background is found out, they're thrown out."

Then how to explain Justin Waltz's presence at the academy? According to Teresa Waltz, Justin's stepmother, the boy was in serious trouble with the law in Huntsville when he was admitted to the MMA in the fall of 1996. Justin had been arrested on charges of burglarizing several houses and of aggravated assault on a child -- a record the MMA was aware of when his stepmother contacted the school, she says. "They told me they would take him before he was convicted," says Waltz. "So we made a deal with the prosecutor that he wouldn't prosecute him if we sent him to MMA. MMA said they could straighten him out."

Justin Waltz was in constant trouble at the 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. But when Waltz arrived to pick him up, Justin was gone.

"I found him myself with no help from them," says Waltz. "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 Saint Croix was sent to the 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, 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 the 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 about 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 the MMA, the ratio rarely falls below 70 to 1. Drill instructors live with their wives in an apartment on the barracks' first floors. 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 mil


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