Final class graduates from DRILL Academy

Slowly and reverently, the American flag was lowered for the final time at the DRILL Academy on Friday morning.

With taps playing in the background, eyes misted as the final moments of the sheriff's boot camp in Immokalee came.

The lives of 554 boys in 37 platoons were changed, some only for their six-month-long stay and some for a lifetime, at the DRILL compound.

Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter, center, greets the DRILL instructors Friday morning before the DRILL deactivation ceremony in Immokalee. Hunter started the DRILL program in March 1996.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Daily News

Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter, center, greets the DRILL instructors Friday morning before the DRILL deactivation ceremony in Immokalee. Hunter started the DRILL program in March 1996.

But now the DRILL experience is over.

"We have a very strong enemy that we have to face. It's called the street," said Sheriff Don Hunter, who started the DRILL (Discipline, Respect, Integrity, Learning and Leadership) Academy in March 1996 after months of wrangling with juvenile justice officials around the state to open his camp meant to save the lives of young men, some of them hardened criminals.

"The street can own these young men if we don't pay attention."

A few hours later, a platoon of 13 boys would graduate from DRILL and head home to their families.

They would be the final platoon.

A study done by jail Capt. Chris Freeman concluded that DRILL wasn't keeping kids out of a life of crime. After five years out of the DRILL confines, the re-arrest rate came in at 97 percent and Hunter decided to close the camp.

The problem was their return home to the same neighborhoods where they stole cars, burglarized homes, and used and sold drugs. Once they got back on their old turf, they went back to their old ways.

Now, Hunter has decided to work more on prevention and enforcement, getting to the kids who commit the crimes earlier as a way to keep them on a non-criminal track.

It was a tough, emotional decision that showed on Hunter's face at both the deactivation ceremony in Immokalee, attended by dozens of sheriff's deputies, and then the final platoon graduation Friday afternoon at Edison College in East Naples.

"Now it's real," Hunter said as some of the boys carried out containers of boots and sneakers, part of the moving-out process. "It's not some abstract concept anymore."

For Commander Beth Jones, the longest-serving camp commander, it was a difficult Friday.

"It kind of hit us this morning," said Jones.

The boys have been talking about being the last platoon since September when Hunter announced the closing.

DRILL Commander Beth Jones watches as members of the Sheriff's Office retire the flag that flew at the DRILL Academy campus on Friday morning. As of Friday, DRILL, which opened in 1996 to help rehabilitate teenagers in trouble with the law, closed its doors for good.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Daily News

DRILL Commander Beth Jones watches as members of the Sheriff's Office retire the flag that flew at the DRILL Academy campus on Friday morning. As of Friday, DRILL, which opened in 1996 to help rehabilitate teenagers in trouble with the law, closed its doors for good.

"They're excited," Jones said. "But I think that's also because they're going home."

Freeman, who calculated the re-arrest rates that closed DRILL, said it was a tough day for all of the people who put so much time and effort into the program.

"But we'll redeploy," he said.

Around 200 people, from family and friends to former DRILL instructors to the county's two juvenile judges, jammed into the auditorium at Edison College to congratulate the final platoon.

There were laughs at the video that showed the strained faces of the boys as they tried to master chin-ups or their lame dance moves and applause at their finishing a road race, flying the DRILL colors. And lots of tears as the young men made the final march into the auditorium and then the final crossing of the stage to graduate.

"The message is clear. It's a message I've been hammering, 'Change,' " said Sgt. David Dellinger, the platoon sergeant. "When they were in their underwear and shaking when they first got there, that's when it started."

Some of the DRILL graduates shared their plans and accomplishments, from losing weight and gaining muscle to heading off to the military.

Kyle Abraham, 17, is heading off to college to get a degree in civil engineering to join his father's construction business. He went from a straight A, honors student to a pot-smoker and alcohol abuser. His partying, skipping school and disregarding authority led him to DRILL.

"DRILL taught me the value of freedom," Abraham told the crowd. "To eat what I want and as much as I want, to sleep when I want to, and to talk with my family whenever I wanted to, are all part of freedom. ... I never want to lose that freedom again."

His mother, Lana, was awaiting his return home after the graduation.

"He never should have been in here," she said, explaining that it was the marijuana that hurt his chances and sent him to the boot camp. "I'm proud. And I'm so glad that he's off drugs."

DRILL candidate Dantae Howard hugs Cpl. Uriel 'Rick' Roman after graduating from the residential program of DRILL on Friday afternoon at Edison Community College. Howard's platoon was the final platoon to graduate from DRILL.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Daily News

DRILL candidate Dantae Howard hugs Cpl. Uriel "Rick" Roman after graduating from the residential program of DRILL on Friday afternoon at Edison Community College. Howard's platoon was the final platoon to graduate from DRILL.

Dwight Brown, 15, too, told the audience that his drug-using, car-stealing and thieving days are over. He wants to join the Army and one day be a fishing guide. And he gave a special thanks to his mother, Nina Young. He said he didn't want to see her cry again.

"I made a promise never to break the law or go back to jail because I never want to hurt my mother and my family again," he said.

The Browns were going home to some barbecue, probably steaks and ribs, all ready for their newly freed son.

"We're going to take it one day at a time and nothing more," Young said.

The DRILL camp, too, will get a facelift.

Hunter said it's not final yet but a moderate risk facility for juvenile offenders, either operated by the state Department of Juvenile Justice or under their contract, will move to the DRILL grounds.

Before they left their uniforms behind and before the DRILL flag, with the camp's lifetime marked on it, March 6, 1996, to Dec. 9, 2005, was retired, the DRILL graduates offered their final commitment.

"We, platoon, 2-05, the last platoon,

Having found a new way of life,

Commit ourselves to do our best

And withstand life's stress.

Devote our hands to our community and

Our minds to higher education,

For our community, our families and ourselves."

© 2005 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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