It has now been 10 years since fourteen-year-old Gina Score died in a boot camp in Plankinton, South Dakota, as the Press & Dakotan recently reported (“Former S.D. Boot Camp,” July 21).
The horrifying, brutal events of Gina’s death-the scared, overweight young girl was forced to run nearly three miles on her second day at the camp, was dragged along the dirt road, was accused of “faking” her symptoms as she began to foam at the mouth and hallucinate, and was left lying outside in the hot sun for hours without medical attention-touched South Dakotans, the country, and the world.
Several human rights and child advocacy organizations around the country were outraged and immediately demanded investigations and reforms. Human rights organization Amnesty International addressed Gina Score in its report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in 2000. Meanwhile, more stories of abuse in Plankinton and other state facilities began to reach the public.
Gina’s death had a profound influence on my life. I was thirteen years old at the time and was shocked by the story. While I belonged to a family that had always been involved in social justice causes (thus it was no surprise to me when my dad ran for state representative a year later, making boot camp abuses one of his major campaign issues), I felt for the first time that I had the opportunity and the duty to become a leader and to promote a cause.
I knew a few other Yankton High School students who felt the same way. With Amanda Stephenson and Carie Schneider, I co-founded “Young Activists for Justice,” and others soon joined. Our group protested at the Plankinton boot camp, corresponded with lawyers, lawmakers, and advocates, even called a press conference at the capitol in Pierre to support a bill for accreditation of the state’s juvenile institutions.
In 2001, my family moved to Florida, and later that year I learned that the Plankinton boot camp was closing. My friends and I felt that this was a victory, but we also felt that the battle was far from over. We knew that abuse of youth in juvenile facilities and the lack of youth rights in schools and courts had not ended.
I have always thought of the Gina Score case within a larger context of widespread, systemic violation of the rights of youth throughout the United States. Ten years after the death of Gina Score, youth in the United States are still arguably “the least free of those in any Western nation” (as sociologist Dr. Michael Males has argued). While the closing of the Plankinton boot camp represents progress, here are several issues we should keep in mind, as we gauge how far we have come (nationally) on youth rights issues in the last 10 years:
Ten years after the death of Gina Score, dozens of privately operated juvenile “boot camps” are unregulated by the government and continue to perpetrate abuses, while abuses in government-run facilities also persist.
Maia Szalavitz’ excellent book, “Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids” (Penguin 2006), explores the shady history of juvenile boot camps. Contrary to the widespread belief that juvenile boot camps were started by the military, the first juvenile boot camps were founded by a kooky California cult called “Synanon.” No self-respecting child psychologist would argue that the boot camp model is the best way to rehabilitate youth, but many state-run and private juvenile facilities still use the boot camp model.
Even more shocking, however, is Szalavitz’ description of a network of privately-owned juvenile boot camps called the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP), which has a highly abusive history. Some teens in these camps died in circumstances similar to those of Gina Score. Others spent months in solitary confinement, were brutally beaten, or were denied food or access to bathrooms for extended periods of time, all in the name of “tough love.”
According to Szalavitz, WWASP tells parents that the kids make up stories of abuse to get attention, and it often does not allow its wards to contact their parents. To top this off, there is no government agency in charge of overseeing these private facilities.
Ten years after the death of Gina Score, the United States is still one of only two countries in the world that refuses to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child. (The other is Somalia.)
One reason the United States initially refused to sign the Convention was because the U.S. was one of only a few countries in the world that applied the death penalty to juveniles; fortunately, within the 10 years since the death of Gina Score, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute a person for a crime he or she committed as a juvenile. (We’re still the only Western industrial democracy with the death penalty.)
However, the United States continues to try youth in adult courts and to sentence them to lengthy prison terms, including life imprisonment with no chance of parole, a practice that is prohibited by the UN Convention. Paul Dean Jensen of South Dakota, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole during the Janklow period for a crime he committed at the age of fourteen, is one victim of a policy that makes the U.S. lag considerably behind the rest of the world on human rights issues.
Ten years after the death of Gina Score, hundreds of immigrant children are imprisoned in Taylor, Texas. I attended a protest there last month. Children fleeing war and abuse around the world, seeking asylum in the United States, are often imprisoned there for months or even years while awaiting a court hearing. Their parents are typically sent to separate facilities.
Ten years after the death of Gina Score, many American public schools are still more like “fortified public buildings” (a term a Yankton City Council representative once used in a letter to me) than centers of learning and freedom of thought. Although youth crime rates have been falling steadily since the 1960s, unwarranted fear of youth has led to “fortifying” of schools. Many schools with no major crime problem have become veritable mazes of metal detectors, cameras, locker- and strip-searches (as a recent U.S. Supreme Court case highlighted), and police or armed guards. In some schools, students are not even permitted to carry backpacks or purses.
Ten years after the death of Gina Score, there is an urgent need for towns to develop “youth spaces,” places where youth are welcome and are encouraged to express themselves. In many communities, teenagers feel unwelcome in public places and gather in abandoned places like parking lots. City curfews often reinforce the perception that teenagers are not welcome in public.
This list of problems, of course, is lengthy. I wish I could say that I now disagree with sociologist Michael Males, but I have to say that I still agree with him that U.S. youth are the least free of those in any Western nation.
As we remember Gina, we mourn, we remember our little victories, and we remember that we still have a long way to go.
Joan Braune (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former Yankton resident, is a doctoral student in Philosophy at the University of Kentucky and is on the Board of the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice.