From the time he was a small boy, Jesse Mactagone dreamed he would become a U.S Army officer.
His mom had painted the wall behind his bed olive green. His bed sheets depicted fighter jets.
“He never wore anything but camouflage,” said his mother, Jennifer Mactagone. “He knows every tank, every single helicopter.”
So, at age 14, when the time arrived for Jesse to choose a high school, the Auburn, Calif.boy leaped at an offer by his U.S. Navy veteran grandfather to pay $30,000 a year to attend St. John’s Military School in Salina.
Website images of spit-and-polish students and a message of “discipline” and “a structured campus life” that promoted “qualities such as personal graces, confidence, respect, high moral character, and leadership” seemed the perfect fit.
“We didn’t send him to St. John’s,” Jesse’s mother said. “He wanted to go.”
But now, as part of a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, the Mactagones stand with a growing number of St. John’s families alleging their sons experienced the opposite of grace and character.
The Mactagones allege that Jesse was so severely physically abused and beaten, not at the hands and feet of faculty, but by other students, that four days after he stepped on campus in August of 2011, he needed to be rushed to the hospital. He was unable to walk with two broken legs, including a displaced femur.
A cell phone video on the Internet shows Jesse using crutches, struggling to stand on his broken legs, as he pleads for an instructor to help. Laughter from classmates drowns out his pleas.
Allegations by others — which the school vehemently denies — include forced hot “brandings” with insignia pins, repeated beatings by upper classmen and sexually humiliating punishments, such as doing naked push-ups. One student claims seven boys entered his room as he slept and pummeled him with “locks in socks,” padlocks stuffed into the end of socks.The school’s president called the charges “hurtful,” “disheartening” and wrong.
“We who have read all those allegations know they are false,” St. John’s President Andy England said this week.
Through a Kansas City public relations company, the school noted that the Salina Police Department investigated the purported abuse as a crime and has closed its case without taking action.
The Associated Press reported last week that although a Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services investigation into Jesse’s case gathered enough evidence to substantiate lack of supervision against one military advisor and two nurses, the agency found no “clear and convincing evidence” that anyone at the school caused Jesse’s injuries or denied him medical care.
“We intend to fight them in court,” England said of the lawsuit’s allegations. “We put a lot of effort and care into the kids. We work very hard to get to know them and provide them with every single opportunity.”
First filing in March, lawyers began by representing five families, then seven. Last week, lawyers submitted a motion to expand the case to 11 students as more families have come forward.
The lawsuit claims one former student was bound with duct tape — body, hands, eyes and mouth — and endured such repeated abuse at the school in 2009 and 2010 that he eventually attempted suicide. It alleges that while another student stood under inspection in front of a superior-ranked classmate, the classmate bent the boy’s head into his knee, cracking the boy’s eye socket.
“I don’t have an explanation for this,” said Daniel Zmijewski, the plaintiffs’ attorney at the Kansas City law firm Miller Schirger. “As far as I can tell, and like we allege, it is a culture of violence where kids are appointed to discipline other kids and the discipline is out-of-hand and not supervised.”
In the lawsuit, Zmijewski maintains that since 2006, St. John’s has settled nine previous lawsuits related to abuse of its students, including one previously filed by Zmijewski.
The school said that it had settled claims in two lawsuits since 2009.
A military culture
As the allegations have grown, national attention has also intensified, casting a spotlight on the culture inside the dwindling world of America’s military schools.
More than 700 dotted the nation a century ago, as bastions where boys were forged into gentlemen with possible entrée into some of the top military academies. Fewer than 35 exist today.
Many were started in the 19th century. St. John’s was founded in 1887 by an Episcopal bishop.
Its tidy brick buildings, some adorned with white columns, board 220 students and sit on a nine-acre campus adjoining a quiet residential neighborhood on the north side of this city of about 50,000 people.
When stopped on the street, few in Salina seem to know much, if anything, about the school.
Salina resident Kristi Dean, 32, said that in the 1990s, St. John’s had a rough reputation.
“It was like, ‘Don’t talk to them, they’re bad,’ ” Dean said. “I’ve heard it’s gotten a lot better.”
During the 1980s recession, St. John’s and a few other military schools began accepting state money to take in unruly juveniles referred to them by state agencies.
St. John’s has not had any contracts with the state of Kansas since the mid-1990s.
Yet whenever accusations such as those against St. John’s arise, military school officials and others said it sadly reinforces what many see as an unfair stereotype of the institutions as surrogate reform schools where bad boys get straightened out through brutal discipline.
“When you hear about something happening at a military school, people will be like, ‘So, oh well, what do you expect?’ Which is too bad,” said John Buxton, head of schools at Culver Academies, a military school in Indiana and past executive committee chair of the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States. “Most of these people are doing good things with great kids. It’s only when you get the ‘Lord of the Flies’ things going that it makes you think these schools are juvenile detentions or something.”
“Lord of the Flies” is the 1954 William Golding novel about a group of English school boys who, stranded on an uninhabited island with no adult supervision, turn to group savagery and kill one of their own.
William Trousdale is a retired Smithsonian Institution anthropologist who studied all-boys military boarding schools for 10 years to produce the 2009 book, “Military High Schools in America.” He said that the negative image is untrue on the whole and that the majority of military schools rank as average to excellent institutions in terms of students’ behaviors and academics.
“What you always hear is the negative,” he said, “because the positive is not news.”
Online, however, a number of military schools still strongly market themselves as places geared to bring structure, order and discipline to the lives of difficult kids.
England, the St. John’s president, said in an interview last week that although most students at St. John’s choose to be there, some are brought to the school as a last resort by parents.
“We’ve had parents that drop their kids off and have told them they were going to basketball camp,” England said.
Even among difficult kids, the school has strong supporters.
Mark Triebwasser, 32, of Folsom, Calif, attended St. John’s from 6th through 12th grade. He was brought there by his father and when he entered, he said, “I was one of the biggest s***heads in the whole school” and remained so for three years.
“I didn’t want to listen to anybody,” he said. “I just had a flat out problem with authority.”
He said the school turned him around, but not using fists, feet or brutality. Nor, he said, did he ever witness anyone else being beaten.
Triebwasser graduated in 1998 as a school leader with the rank of colonel and now owns a theatrical equipment company.
“If I had not gone there, I would not have turned out like I am today,” he said, “or have the values I have today.”
Ryan Lynch, 17, of Overland Park will be a senior at St. John’s when school starts this summer. He said he could not speak specifically about the students in the lawsuit, all known classmates. He could be called as a witness, as might any St. John’s student.
“I know people perceive that people get beat up there everyday,” he said. “Nobody gets beat up as discipline. That is a false perception.”
Like Triebwasser, Ryan was enrolled at St. John’s by a parent, his mother, Laura Kenny, who is 55, divorced and raising five kids on her own. Her son’s schoolwork was suffering. He’d turned confrontational and was running with a bad group. She said she needed help.
“I took him there hoping he would just graduate from high school and not get into trouble with the law or drugs,” she said.
Ryan thinks it worked. “When I look at myself, at 14, I was a punk kid,” he said. “Now, I think, I’m a man.”
His mother is grateful.
“He is a respectful, courteous, young man looking to go to college,” she said. “It is beyond my wildest hopes.”
Last week, around the same time the plaintiffs’ attorney filed its petition to add four new students to its file, St. John’s officials went on the public relations offensive.
They released a statement denying the allegations against it, student-by-student. In its three-page statement, the school maintains:
• The student who was bound in duct tape had asked his classmates to do it and to take photos to appear as if he was restrained against his will, the statement maintains, as a stunt intended to prompt his parents to withdraw him from school. The school said his branding burns were self-inflicted, that he had been reprimanded for self-mutilation and his parents were told that they should seek professional counseling for their son.
• Jesse Mactagone was injured in an accidental fall during a short morning run, the school said. The statement included a condolence from the school’s president. “Our hearts go out to Jesse and his family.”
• Student L.T. (students are identified only by initials in the lawsuit) came to St. John’s after being suspended from three other schools. In its statement, St. John’s said the student was reprimanded for fights with other cadets, for self-mutilation, for barricading himself in his barracks and for putting his fist through the glass of a window.
• Student C.D first came to St. John’s transported by security, the school says. He alleges being branded and jumped, but the school said video cameras do not corroborate his story.
• Student J.A., the statement goes on to say, had to be moved from a Middle School grouping because he was the one repeatedly bullying and intimidating other students.
• Student C.U. was disciplined multiple times for drug offenses. His allegation of verbal harassment by student commanders was addressed, the statement says, and adds that the commanders were relieved of duty. His injuries, including a strained knee, came during physical training, the school holds.
Question of oversight
To William Ryan, 39, of Los Angeles, who attended St. John’s for one year in the late 1980s, the accusations against his former school sound all-too familiar.
“It was an awful experience,” Ryan said, “and probably the hardest thing I have had to do in, at least, the first 30 years of my life.”
Although he said he experienced no abuse at the school, he claims to have witnessed countless instances in the single year he was there. Among them were “blanket parties,” in which groups of cadets would assault a lesser-ranking classmate who was thought to be causing trouble or shirking his duties. They would cover him with a blanket and beat him with “soap in socks.”
Others cadets were beaten with broomsticks and kicked with combat boots, he said. From some, the abuse would become so repeated that they would run away and had to be forcibly retrieved.
“One night a kid came back and one of the kids who was in charge dangled him out the window by his legs,” Ryan said. “It’s a year I remember in great detail.”
Some school supporters speculate that the lawsuits against St. John’s are motivated by students who were unhappy at the school, or dismissed, and want the return of all or part of their tuition.
As Ryan sees it, the problem is the same as that alleged in the lawsuit: Students are allowed to discipline students with little adult supervision.
St. John’s, like many military schools, operates on a peer system. Higher-ranking boys guide and mentor and, when necessary, discipline “New Boys” who are fresh to the school, along with students of lower rank.
England, the school president, said that student leaders answer to adults and are given strong supervision.
“Adults are always there watching,” he said.
But the lawsuit claims that whatever supervision existed was not enough.
Buxton, of Culver Academies, said that at any military school proper supervision is vital.
“It always comes down to having the right adults, the right supervision,” he said. “Kids leading kids can be ‘Lord of the Flies’ It typically comes down to, ’Are the adults paying attention?’ ”
In the case of her son, plaintiff Yolanda Nkemakolam of San Antonio, Texas, believes they were not.
Her son was not a trouble-maker, she said. In high school, he was getting C’s and the occasional D.
Nkemakolam said she picked a military school because she had been in the military.
“I had a good experience,” Nkemakolam said. “It gave me the discipline to develop and grow as an adult. And I really thought it would be a good thing for him.”
The lawsuit claims that Nkemakolam’s son instead was urinated upon by students in the shower, pushed into and left in a locker for more than 30 minutes and was bound, gagged and beaten. It claims that every time his parents sought information about their son’s complaints, a school official told them their son was doing fine.
The suits claims that boys often did not initially tell their parents of the alleged abuse against them for fear of being considered “rats” and becoming the subject of retribution. Nkemakolam’s son did complain, she said, but she just thought he needed time to adjust.
“When he came home at Christmas, he just completely broke down,” she said. “There was no way, he would go back. He said he would kill himself if we tried to make him go back. He’s a shy boy. Very quiet and very shy. I guess they looked at him as weak from Day One.”
Who is responsible for what may or may not have occurred at St. John’s will be decided in court.
Meantime, the next military class at St. John’s will begin drilling this summer.
Nkemakolam’s son has been enrolled in a private Christian school that his mother says, “he loves.”
Jesse Mactagone, who turns 15 in July, is back in California and attends public school.
His mother has repainted his room.