After two student suicides and numerous allegations of improper conduct at the Stanislaus Military Academy, newly revealed hearing transcripts reveal an apparent lack of administrative oversight of the school.
SMA is a military school, with the primary aim of employing military tactics to improve the character and thus the lives of troubled youth.
In real U.S. Armed Forces boot camps recruits are often broken down physically and mentally using physical punishment and training. Then recruits are built back up with praise and reward.
In a grievance hearing held following one student’s suicide, Student Support Advocate Destiny Alvarez said the school lacks the latter.
“We’ve been, you know, told by Mr. Bigler (SMA Director of Community Services Fred Bigler) that our students need to be broken down before they can be built up. But in the two and a half years that I’ve been working on the SMA campus and the Ceres campus, I haven’t seen much of that building up,” she said.
SCOE Superintendent Tom Changnon developed the vision for SMA after hearing of the success of a similar private school in Virginia which his own nephew attended. Despite creating the school and overseeing its funding and operation, Changnon appeared to be unaware of several critically important aspects of the school’s protocol regarding the troubled students which make up the majority of the student body.
During the aforementioned grievance hearing, the following exchange occurred.
Question: Do parents get notified if their child threatens to commit suicide?
Chagnon: “I don’t know that.”
Q: So you don’t know how it’s done, who follows up?
Q: Or who counsels the student when they threaten to commit suicide?
Superintendent: “Self Governance” Best For SMA
Changnon also made clear that he feels SMA should not be subject to any independent oversight, despite the nature of physical discipline at the school and inherently tense, aggressive interactions between staff and students.
“The academy has been going more towards a self-governance model, which is the character piece,” he said in reference to Drill Instructor-lead character training for students. That training is designed to give students the skills to deal with emotional issues, thus self-governing in respect that they obey the drill instructors and then there are no problems.
Changnon also appeared to have no knowledge of whether staff and teachers at the school are trained to deal with crisis situations on campus.
Question: So you’re telling me you’re dealing with these students that are at-risk and they fight frequently at the military academy, but you’re telling me that they don’t have training to deal with it; is that correct?
Chagnon: “I’m not sure if the alternative ed side of the house has attended those trainings.” (In reference to crisis training held for special education staff and teachers at other SCOE-run facilities.)
Changnon also made it apparent that student advocates are not needed to help students.
In response to a recent cutback in Student Support Advocates, Changnon again said his priorities do not include mental health support for already troubled students.
Question: So having less advocates, professional advocates at the military academy you feel is a good idea for those at-risk students; is that correct?
Chagnon: “We feel that the work that the teachers are doing with the drill sergeants compensates for that, and they can teach respect to yourself, respect to others, and most importantly respect authority.”