Stanislaus Military Academy incident being investigated

naustin@modbee.comOctober 18, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin
    E-mail: naustin@modbee.com

— The principal of a military-style public school for at-risk students is on paid leave as a student injury and parent complaints of rough treatment of youths are investigated.

The county Office of Education put Stanislaus Military Academy Principal Alberto Velarde on leave while a legal firm investigator it hired and Turlock police look into the student injury. Meanwhile, the school also faces a grievance filed on behalf of an employee who says he was laid off after standing up for students.

The military academy, which opened in January 2010 at the John B. Allard Educational Complex on North Kilroy Road, serves teens expelled or nearing expulsion from other schools. Students, called cadets, wear camouflage uniforms and are expected to conform to a military structure and drill-sergeant discipline.

But one parent said the discipline is too harsh. Frances Sanchez said her son, Reece, broke his wrist when a drill sergeant raised and shook the end of a lunch bench, causing him to fall. Reece told The Bee he was not feeling well, so was lying on a lunch table and ignored repeated orders to get off. He eventually moved down to the attached bench before falling.

Stanislaus Superintendent Tom Changnon said an investigator was hired about two weeks ago to interview numerous student and staff witnesses. Turlock police officer Mayra Lewis said her department also is investigating the Oct. 7 incident. It was the first report of any fights or assaults at the school in more than a year, Lewis said, though she added that with a school resource officer now on campus, less serious offenses might not be brought to police.

In earlier years, a high number of reports of fights and assaults between students do appear, she said. The most serious charge, that an instructor sexually assaulted a student in the 2009-10 school year, was referred to police in Modesto, where the incident allegedly occurred, Lewis said. County office administrators said the probationary instructor, whose name was not released, resigned, and they did not know if any charges were filed.

Lewis said she did not find reports of specific incidents described by parents, staff and former staff members to The Bee at a meeting called by the California School Employees Association, which is pursuing a grievance on behalf of laid-off student support advocate Frederick Berry. Berry served as a mentor and helped students at the school connect with services, such as health care, clothing and emergency food. He told The Bee he spoke out about harsh discipline at the academy.

Scott Kuykendall, head of alternative education for the county office, said those services are now done by remaining student support advocates. “We just found we had way too many bodies trying to do the same things,” he said.

But CSEA regional negotiator Kyle Harvey said Berry’s job was contracted out to a nonprofit agency. That violates the county’s labor contract, he said, and does not serve the students as well. “It seems that there is a conflict between the military-style training and supporting the students this is attracting,” Harvey said. “The concept is great, but carrying out the program the way it is now is abysmal.”

The Bee asked a few students to talk this week and heard no complaints about their treatment.

Friday morning, most of the schools’ 180 cadets stood for weekly inspection, where drill sergeants critique everything from their regulation haircut to the shine on their boots. Running down a checklist, boys were marked down if they hadn’t shaved that day. All were quizzed on the Cadet Pledge, recited every day after the flag salute, or the program’s core values: commitment, discipline, respect, courage and honor.

Cadets caught chatting or out of line had to “drop and do five.” Gabriela Gutierrez, stifling a yawn after finishing her five push-ups, said she didn’t mind the punishment. “I had my hands in my pockets, and I know I shouldn’t do that,” she said with a grin.

José Mendoza, marked down at inspection for not being able to recite something from the Cadet Guide, said the tight discipline style works for him. “I think things through more,” he said. “It’s character-building. We do academics, too, but it’s more like everybody’s more on point, more on task” compared with other schools he’s attended.

Asked if he’s seen drill sergeants be hard on cadets, José said, “No.” But over the past two years, he said, he’s seeing better people skills in himself and instructors. “It goes both ways. There’s more respect. They’re like role models,” he said. “They’re not mean. They don’t get mad at us.”

Senior Abel Contreras said he liked the evenhanded discipline at the academy. “Everybody’s just like me,” he said. The constant jabs to toe the line? “It doesn’t bother me. That’s what I came here for. I wanted to mature,” he said. “I actually learn here.”

It takes a couple of months for new kids to get with the program, he said: “Then we do this with a sense of pride, kind of.”

Drill sergeant Matt Mancebo said his days as a Marine taught him respect and discipline, and he tries to pass that on. Parents tell him they see big changes, kids who help with the dishes and clean their rooms. Asked if he’s ever told an injured student to push through pain and keep going – as some parents claim staff has done – Mancebo said if he believes a student has an injury, he alters the requirement. “We do that when we know they’re faking it, like if they’ve just been playing basketball and then say they can’t do a push-up. If we see they’re limping, we’re not going to make them do running or anything,” he said.

Student Daisy McKee, 16, echoed that sentiment, saying the only students she’s seen complain and not be released were those she was sure were faking it. She said the discipline system is fair. “We get what we deserve,” she said.

Changnon said he supports the school’s mission and methods. “It’s a great school. It’s not for everyone,” he said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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