WICHITA, Kan. – The mother of a 14-year-old boy says a cellphone video depicting her son struggling to stand on two broken legs is proof that her son was harmed while attending a Kansas military school and supports claims in a federal lawsuit that the school encouraged a culture of abuse.
The 3:39-minute video clip obtained exclusively by The Associated Press depicts Jesse Mactagone of Auburn, Calif., at St. John's Military School wobbling and pleading for help as an instructor tries to make him stand. Both of the boy's legs were broken during the four days in August 2011 that he attended the school, and he was hospitalized before being flown home. He no longer attends the school.
Mactagone and the families of six other students filed a federal lawsuit in March seeking unspecified damages, claiming the school in Salina allowed and encouraged abuse. St. John's has settled nine previous abuse lawsuits filed since 2006. However, law enforcement authorities in Kansas have declined to file assault charges against anyone at the school, citing a lack of evidence.
"How many more kids need to be hurt before they are heard?" his mother, Jennifer Mactagone, said in a phone interview from California. "Can you imagine what some of these boys go through, how scared they are? This is the worst case of bullying I have seen and it is all orchestrated by the adults at the school."
The Episcopal boarding school, which charges families nearly $30,000 per year for students enrolled in grades 6-12, draws students from across the nation to its military-styled program. In a statement from its public relations firm, the school said it had not seen the video and cannot comment on it. But it said in an email that other parents have expressed outrage at the abuse allegations and told the school how pleased they were at their own sons' complete turnarounds during their time at the school.
"St. John's Military School prides itself on its 120-year history of helping young men develop leadership and academic skills in a safe and structured environment and emphatically denies the existence of a culture of abuse," the school said.
The school on Thursday filed a motion seeking a protective order prohibiting distribution of videos and photos related to the lawsuit. There has been no resolution to that motion.
Jesse's injuries are among some of the most egregious alleged in the latest litigation. The boy apparently broke the tibia bone in his left leg on the first day he was at the school. His right leg was broken on the third day, with a hospital x-ray showing his femur bone displaced several inches below the knee, according to the lawsuit.
Just exactly how both of Jesse's legs were broken remains somewhat of a blur, according to his mother. He was pushed while running on the first day, and his mother said that the drill instructor ordered other students to run over him as they passed him. She said the boy also vaguely remembers being beaten before and after the mess hall incident depicted in the video.
In the mess hall video, captured on a cellphone by someone inside, the boy pleads with an adult instructor to "please help me" as laughter from classmates drowns out his cries. The adult instructor repeatedly orders Jesse to stand up on his left leg, then his right leg as he struggles with his crutches. His legs tremble furiously, unable to support the weight of his body. At one point, the instructor asks the boy, "You've had a broken leg before?"
Jesse screams in pain as the instructor tells him to pick up his leg up.
"I can't do," the boy repeatedly says.
The video then shows cadets taking the crutches away and dragging Jesse under his arms to the far corner of the mess hall. Then, it cuts out.
The lawsuit claims that he was then taken outside and thrown on the ground, where staff and students dragged him by his ankles, shaking them wildly and kicking him in the knees. They demanded he stand up on his broken legs and threatened to punch him in his mouth if he did not stop screaming. Surveillance video from the school shows cadets later wheeling him back to his room in a shopping cart.
Staff and cadets at the school gave police a different account. One cadet told police that everyone assumed Jesse was "faking his injury," according to police reports obtained by AP through an open records request.
It isn't clear if the instructors or the cadets knew the extent of his injuries during the videotaped incident. A police report says Jesse went to the nurse's office multiple times, and was treated with the medical supplies on hand. An emergency room nurse later told police he arrived with an extremely swollen knee and the school should have reacted more quickly.
The instructor depicted in the video told police that he had sent a cadet to get the nurse while he stayed with Jesse in the mess hall. He acknowledged asking the boy to get himself up while he steadied the crutches, but said he told cadets to get Jesse back to the barracks after he was done with his meal. He said he did not stay to see how he was removed from the mess hall. He told police he noticed later that some cadets were carrying the boy by holding him under his legs and he told them not to do that.
Jesse's mother says her son has been withdrawn since returning home to California. A steel plate remains inside his leg and a centipede-like scar extends from the bottom of his knee all the way to his thigh where his leg was cut open to fix his femur.
"His leg is a constant reminder of what happened to him and that is why psychologically he has buried this so deep," his mother said. "It is very hard to get anything out of him — he curls up into a ball and starts crying because I think it was just so horrific what he went through."
Follow AP writer Roxana Hegeman at twitter.com/rhegeman