In Florida, anyone can operate a private school.
No license necessary.
No teaching qualifications needed.
No curriculum required.
The system is allowing for people like Alan and Molly Weierman to operate the Southeastern Military Academy (SEMA) in Port St. Lucie.
The school, which had only 12 students last year, has been investigated by the Department of Children and Families for 48 child abuse allegations since 1994. DCF found evidence of cruel and unusual punishment of children such as choking to unconsciousness, punching, and kicking.
Fifteen-year-old Austin Griffin is the most recent example.
Austin and his two younger brothers were attending SEMA from 2015 until Austin says he was abused on April 19, 2018.
The school promises on its website it’s "among the best schools in the world."
A private, Christian-based military school with the mission to focus on behavioral or educational issues and teach self-confidence and self-discipline. Austin’s mom, Tanya Clayton, was sold.
"Austin did struggle academically before that and I expected him to be able to get caught up," Clayton said.
But Austin quickly realized this school was not what he and his mother thought it was.
"The colonel, Alan Weierman, brought the shackles out one day," Austin said.
Austin said the colonel explained that the shackles are put on kids if they run away.
But it didn’t end there. Austin said the teachers were violent towards students.
"Major says 'shut up' and kicks (another student) in the side of his face," Austin said.
One method of punishment is forcing the kids to eat a bowl of "stuff," which Austin explains is a bowl of vinegar, frozen vegetables and cayenne pepper. If students misbehave, "stuff" is replacing all their meals, Austin said.
At first, Austin’s mom didn’t believe him.
"From the beginning they tell the parents that your kids are going to lie to you," Clayton said.
And then she said Austin started coming home with bruises.
Clayton decided that this would be the last year her kids would attend SEMA.
"I told my boys just keep your head down, keep your mouth shut. Let's make it to the end of the school year," Clayton said. "And then April 19 happened."
Austin said he was getting his hair cut when he smiled at something his teacher Lt. Gary Looney said. "He says 'Oh you think that's funny?' He’s rushing over with closed fists. And all I'm doing is saying 'please sir, do not do this,'" Austin said. "Lt. Looney starts punching me multiple times in the head. At this time, I have my face covered with my arms, and I’m just taking it, the shots, non-stop. And I hear chairs flying."
Austin ran to a store down the street and asked for help.
"I was uncontrollably shaking. I could barely press the numbers on the phone," Austin said. "I was scared, not only for myself but for my brothers. I was terrified that if I went back that I would be hurt even more, if not killed."
His mom went to pick him up from the store where he had called for help.
"I was numb," Clayton said. "I was shaking. I was trying to remain calm for Austin. And then he started repeating: 'Go get the boys. Please go get the boys.'"
At the hospital, doctors said Austin had a head injury, cervical strain, and back contusion.
Port St. Lucie Police investigated and found probable cause to press charges against teachers Jonathan Weierman and Gary Looney, but the State Attorney declined to prosecute, saying it was difficult in cases such as this to "draw the line between prohibited child abuse and reasonable discipline of a child."
Efforts to reach Gary Looney were unsuccessful. After the publication of this story, Looney contacted WPTV denying the allegations. He declined an interview request.
Austin isn’t the only one with these stories.
"My son didn’t come to school with those (bruises), he came home with those," said another mom of a former SEMA student, who wanted to stay anonymous because she fears retaliation by the teachers.
A week before Austin says he was punched, she said her son was abused as well.
"They would constantly call him names and call him stupid," the mother said.
She recalled an incident with one of the teachers, Jonathan Weierman.
"Jonathan grabbed my son by his arm and was dragging him across the yard," the mom said. "And I’m yelling at him 'Let go of my son' and he wouldn’t let go."
She said prior to that incident she never really believed her son's stories because the school told her that kids make up stories.
"I’m sad," she said under tears. "I’m sad that I didn’t recognize this before."
DCF investigated the case a month after the alleged incident occurred and said "although the child had no injuries, due to the dangerous nature of the staff’s actions as well as the school's egregious conduct involving abuse, this case will be closed out not substantiated for physical abuse."
We asked DCF how many complaints have come forward against SEMA, which had just 12 students last year.
In total DCF investigated 48 child abuse allegations at SEMA since 1994. That makes it an average of 2 abuse allegations per year.
Of the 28 reports Contact 5 was able to review, 16 had substantiated findings.
- 2008: A boy was held in shackles for 12 days
- 2005: A staff member punched a student in the mouth and kneed him in the chest
- 2004: Staff members kicked and choked student
The list goes on and on and on. (READ THE FULL REPORT HERE)
DCF investigators concluded in their 2008 report that the risk to the remaining children at the school was "high."
Since then DCF has investigated nine more cases, as recent as 2018.
Officials with DCF refused to give out details of those cases, stating that state laws prevents them from providing that information.
“We’re not being told that our kids are going into a violent school,” the mom of the anonymous student said.
And that’s not all.
“What our investigation has found is that Mr. Weierman will use the students as free child labor for his business,” said Linda Capobianco, the attorney hired by Austin’s family.
That business is called Dirty Deeds Land Services.
“They would have me and other students get shovels and shovel the dirt and shovel the rocks,” Austin said.
He said kids as young as 8 years old were working for free for Dirty Deeds.
We tried to ask those running the school for a response multiple times, but they declined to talk to us.
“It’s amazing that they’re operating from an academic standpoint because it doesn’t seem that these children are actually receiving an education,” Capobianco said. “How is it even possible that they’re continuing to open their doors, day after day?”
The mother of the anonymous student said teachers at SEMA wouldn’t do much teaching.
“The education part is a joke,” the mother said. “They would always tell him: ‘You’re stupid. You’re not going to get this.”
The parents said students graduating from SEMA don’t get a high school diploma.
SEMA is not licensed by the state or by any private organization, aside from the National Association for Christian Education.
But late May, after Austin says he was attacked, the organization said they took the license away because school officials were not telling the truth.
The organization’s president said it’s the first school in over 40 years that got their license pulled from them.
Now SEMA doesn’t have a license at all. It turns out the school doesn’t need one either.
Private schools in Florida do not need a license to operate. Their teachers don’t need to have a teaching degree, and there is almost no oversight over the school or its curriculum.
“It’s shocking. It’s scary.” Clayton said. “These kids are the future of this country and yet anybody can come in and ruin their future.”
Clayton said she had researched the school but assumed it was licensed by the state.
“I thought private schools were under more scrutiny than public schools,” Clayton said. “Not less.”
It turns out SEMA makes many false claims, starting with the fact that Colonel Alan Weierman is not a colonel. Contact 5 reached out to military officials and they responded saying that they have no information on his military service.
“It downgraded the sacrifice that my family members made in the service,” Clayton said.
On the bottom of SEMA’s website it says the school is recruiting for the U.S. Army. Officials with the Army told us, that is not true. The logo has since been removed from SEMA’s website.
“They (school officials) lie,” Clayton said. “They will do anything to get you to sign that paper.”
Contact 5 also saw two other logos on SEMA’s website. The American Legion and ACA both said they are not affiliated with SEMA. After we contacted the organizations, they asked the school to take down the logos.
What is real is the amount of state scholarship money SEMA collects each year.
Austin received a McKay scholarship of $8,159 in the 2017-18 school year. According to the Department of Education, the school has taken in over $250,000 of scholarship money since 2014.
“They have not only perpetrated a fraud on the student and the families that attend, but also on the state of Florida,” Jerome Stone, attorney for Austin’s family, said.
Alan Weierman refused to talk to us for this story.
But in 2013, when DCF sued, trying and failing to get the school shut down, Alan complained loudly. Read the full case filed by DCF.
“Of all the schools in Florida, why am I being singled out?” Alan said in 2013. “They verified us for bizarre punishment because of the shackles. Port St. Lucie Detective Bureau and the State Attorney found no abuse.”
"Of all the schools in Florida, why am I being singled out? They verified us for bizarre punishment because of the shackles. Both Port St. Lucie Detective Bureau and the State Attorney found no abuse.” - Alan Weierman 2013
Alan faced complaints before he came to Florida.
In 1986 Alan worked at another children’s home in Ohio. A 16-year old girl said she was sexually abused by Alan more than 30 times. She passed a lie detector test, but prosecutors said they didn’t have enough to file charges.
Over the years in Florida, there were several child abuse allegations against Alan, which DCF investigated.
No criminal charges were filed.
Alan was also charged in the past with witness tampering and failure to report child abuse after a girl at the Florida facility claimed to have been sexually abused. Read the full report here
The charges were later dropped.
In 2017 Alan was arrested on more than 100 felony charges. Read the full report here
According to investigators, Alan forged the signatures of dead people and signed their lands over to himself and then sold it to other people.
Investigators say he profited tens of thousands of dollars, but investigators eventually caught on. His trial is set for later this year.
Then there is Alan’s and Molly’s son, Jonathan.
Jonathan was arrested twice for domestic violence.
His former wife told police in 2011 he dragged her from her vehicle and threw her into her home. The charges were dropped.
Then in 2014, he was arrested for kidnapping and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The charges were dropped.
But none of that kept them away from the classroom.
It all started in Ohio.
Molly Weierman’s father Rev. William Brink opened a home for troubled children called the Brinkhaven Home for Youth.
Brink’s son-in-law, Alan, decided to open a second home in Florida. This despite the fact that a girl had accused him of sexual abuse.
Things started to unravel when 55-year old Brink decided to marry a 16-year old girl from the home.
The marriage didn’t last long. The girl filed for divorce saying she was sexually abused by Brink.
He also brought in a second girl to live with him as his daughter who also claims she was sexually abused.
Brink was convicted on rape charges and went to prison. The Ohio home was closed. But the Florida home remained open.
Why is this still happening?
Contact 5 handed State Sen. David Simmons, (R-Altamonte Springs), and Sen. Linda Stewart, (D –Orlando), the list of abuse allegations against SEMA.
“I’m astounded by this,” Stewart said.
We asked Sen. Stewart, why is this school still open?
“There’s no good explanation for that,” Stewart said.
DCF and the Department of Education both refused to do interviews with us.
So, we approached the chair of the education board, Marva Johnson, directly, asking her why SEMA was still operating.
“You know that doesn’t fall in our specific jurisdiction,” Johnson said.
Contact 5’s investigation found private schools are no-man’s land with hardly any oversight.
“Our leadership has done nothing to make sure that McKay scholarships have accountability,” State Rep. Shevrin Jones (D) said.
McKay scholarships are funded by taxpayer money and awarded to private schools by the Department of Education.
State Rep. Jennifer Sullivan (R) said she’s horrified by this specific case, but said more regulations are not the answer.
We asked Sen. Simmons if enough is being done to protect children in private schools in Florida.
“The answer is no,” Simmons said. “I believe that we need to do more.”
Since SEMA didn’t have a license to begin with, DOE can’t take a license away. But they can cut the funding through the state scholarship programs.
“I think we should certainly hold all schools accountable, who are collecting public funds,” Johnson said.
But SEMA continued to collect scholarship money up until July 11, 2018.
Officials with the Department of Education said the school refused to supply information about Austin’s case.
“Due to the school’s hesitancy in supplying us with requested information, including background screenings on their employees, we issued a Notice of Noncompliance,” DOE officials said in a written statement.
DOE officials contacted the Weiermans, asking them to respond to Austin’s case and provide background checks for all employees. Molly Weierman refused that request.
On July 11 – after years of abuse allegations – SEMA withdrew from the scholarship program.
Jones says that’s too little too late.
“I don’t know any program that has no accountability,” Jones said.
Over the years, DCF continued to receive complaints against SEMA and continued to investigate. Kids being bruised, bloodied, shackled and choked.
“Whatever they have found out, DCF should have given a report to the department of education, and the department of education should have called a meeting and decided whether this school was eligible for continued vouchers,” Stewart said.
Contact 5 asked DCF and DOE if the abuse allegations were communicated between the departments. DCF declined to comment. DOE officials said they are not aware of any notifications about SEMA by DCF.
But under current law, DCF is not obligated to share abuse allegations with DOE, since the Department of Education is not overseeing private schools.
DOE officials said that no site visits have ever been made to SEMA.
“Prior to the law changing this past legislative session, the number of site visits to private schools participating in scholarship programs was limited by law, and must have been randomly selected or for an issue of noncompliance,” department officials said in a statement. “This school was not randomly selected and did not have an issue of noncompliance.”
After recent changes in the law, DOE officials are now allowed to conduct more site visits to schools, including mandatory site visits to all newly participating schools.
For lawmakers like Stewart, Simmons, and Jones it’s obvious more needs to be done.
“There has to be more accountability,” Stewart said. “We have to keep our children safe,”
“We can’t continue to expand the programs without accountability,” Jones said.
There are many private schools in Florida doing a great job educating kids. It’s what happens when schools don’t that causes some lawmakers concern.
"We need to do something to get rid of the bad apples,” Simmons said.
DCF investigated Austin’s case. The report concluded that “there are significant concerns for the safety of the students at the school”.
SEMA announced they will not open in the 2018/19 school year. But according to school operator Molly Weierman, they’re planning to eventually open the school back up.
Austin mom’s hopes that this time the school will be closed for good.
“I don’t want any of the people involved to hurt any more children, ever,” Clayton said.
And that’s the goal for Austin as well.
“This is for any kid who has to go through this, which hopefully nobody else does anymore,” Austin said.