Jesse Mactagone lived in a sea of camouflage, with handcrafted model tanks and planes adorning his bedroom. He left home in Auburn last August, energized to attend St. John's Military School for Boys in Kansas.
He lasted four days.
During Mactagone's short time behind the school's brick walls, he and his family claim that students pushed him, trampled him, dragged him, threw him and kicked him, breaking both his legs and displacing his right femur several inches below the knee.
Mactagone, now 14, and the families of other former students are suing the school in Salina, Kan. The federal suit was amended last month to list 10 parents of former students and one former student as plaintiffs who allege the students were abused and tortured at the institution, which portrays itself on its website and in testimonials as a prestigious military academy that vows to keep children safe.
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"This is a scary school," said Jennifer Mactagone, Jesse's mother. "It's older people playing war, and they're not using GI Joes like we all did when we were kids. They're using the real thing."
The complaint, filed in March in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., alleges 10 counts of wrongdoing against St. John's. The boys accuse other students of thrashing them with sabers in the shower, stuffing them into lockers, branding them, threatening their lives, forbidding them to eat and sexually assaulting them. They accuse staff members of negligence and denying them medical care."This is not a case about mere hazing, or a case of boys will be boys," the lawsuit states. "This action chronicles a dangerous and disturbing culture at a boys military school which must end."
Named along with St. John's in the lawsuit are the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America and the Episcopal Diocese of Western Kansas, which created the school and oversee it.
Lawyers from all three entities declined to comment to The Bee, and instead referred inquiries to St. John's spokeswoman Laurie Roberts.
Roberts denies the lawsuit allegations. She cited three separate investigations that have failed to corroborate the abuse alleged by Jesse Mactagone's family.
"Three independent investigations have all reached the same conclusion: Allegations of physical abuse and medical neglect at St. John's are untrue," according to a St. John's statement.
"St. John's Military School's internal investigation found no evidence of physical abuse and medical neglect, and the SRS (Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services) investigation apparently reached the same conclusion. The Salina Police Department also investigated and no charges were filed."
Roberts said Mactagone was injured while running, but nobody pushed him.
"The school interviewed all of the boys who were present and nobody saw anybody push Jesse. They saw him fall multiple times," Roberts told The Bee. "They couldn't find any shred of proof that anybody dragged Jesse and pushed him."
The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services did, however, find "clear and convincing evidence" to support findings that a St. John's military adviser and two school nurses neglected Mactagone after he was injured, according to the Associated Press.
Mactagone spent a week at a Kansas hospital before being transported home on a medical flight.
The school didn't report the boy's injuries to his parents until he was in the hospital, the Mactagones said. They jumped on the next flight to Kansas, where the boy's legs required emergency surgery.
"The doctor said it's one of the most horrific breaks he had ever seen," Jennifer Mactagone said. "He said we usually see breaks like this on people in horrific car accidents, bad, bad car accidents. Or they're dead."
Seeking an education
St. John's brick buildings and grassy green grounds are nestled in the Smoky Hills region of the Great Plains. Salina, population 50,000, is 95 miles north of Wichita.
The school accepts boys in sixth- through 12th-grade from numerous states, including California, and foreign countries. Enrollment was 220 last school year.
Accusations of abuse at military schools are not new. In the past two decades, similar lawsuits have accused military schools of abuse in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, though most of those cases were settled.
St. John's has settled nine abuse cases since 2006, according to the boys' lawsuit. Roberts said in an email that the school disputes that assertion but cannot comment due to confidentiality agreements.
School officials emphasized St. John's reputation as a prestigious military institution and not a boys ranch or delinquency camp. The school, which costs about $30,000 a year, is more than 120 years old and boasts on its website that 92 percent of its recent graduates have gone on to higher education.
Every boy who attends signs a no-hazing and no-bullying policy, Roberts said.
Mactagone's parents said those aspects were what led them to St. John's.
Until 2011, Mactagone was in the Placer County public school system, and his parents said he was bored and tired of teachers who didn't seem to care about him.
His grandfather, who attended a military school for most of his education, suggested sending Jesse to one, Jennifer Mactagone said. He also offered to foot the bill. The boy's parents thought he could meet people at St. John's who shared his interest in the military.
"As far as our decision-making went, when you typed in St. John's Military Academy, there's no bad marks on that school," said Scott Mactagone, Jesse's father. "That's what made us so mad we were looking for a school to better his education. He didn't need any discipline."
Interviewed at his family's home in the Auburn hills, Jesse Mactagone spoke in subdued tones about his time at St. John's. He said his first memory there is of getting his hair buzzed in trademark military style.
"And then after that, your mom says goodbye and they leave," the boy said. "The atmosphere was a little OK, and then the atmosphere just goes down. It goes down fast."
As with all military institutions, physical training is built into the lifestyle at St. John's.
On Mactagone's first day, he said, he was pushed down multiple times while running and trampled by fellow students, causing his left leg to break.
According to the lawsuit, Mactagone asked the school nurse for help several times, but the nurse allegedly told him to continue with physical training.
In its response to the lawsuit, St. John's said the school nurse gave Mactagone an ice pack and excused him from physical training.
Mactagone didn't get crutches until three days later, the lawsuit states. That night, he fell in the mess hall, breaking his right leg, according to the suit.
A video shot by another student on his phone, which was sent to the boys' lawyer, shows Mactagone on the mess hall floor as students and a staff member order him to stand. His broken legs wobble and his voice shakes as he cries that he can't stand.
Later, according to the suit, students dragged him outside by his broken legs and threw him over a fence. They returned him to his barracks in a shopping cart.
Mactagone woke up on a urine-soaked floor and couldn't stand the next morning, the suit states. Someone rolled him to the nurse's office in a chair, where a staff member called an ambulance.
Jennifer Mactagone told The Bee she spoke to boys who attended the school, and they speculated that Jesse was resented and abused because he was happy to be there.
In the school's response to the lawsuit and in statements from Roberts, the spokeswoman, St. John's has acknowledged that Mactagone fell while running and in the cafeteria, but said his complaint that other students abused him was unfounded. In its statement, the school said officials immediately sent Mactagone to the hospital once they realized the gravity of his injuries.
"Our hearts go out to Jesse and his family," St. John's President Andrew England said in a statement. "We are sympathetic to Jesse and continue to wish him well in recovery."
The 10 other boys involved in the suit tell similar stories of students abusing them as staff members looked away.
One student, a Florida resident identified in the lawsuit as Z.O., attended St. John's from January 2010 through the end of the 2011 school year. He claims in the lawsuit that students beat him with socks that appeared to contain padlocks, choked him and sexually assaulted him.
St. John's issued a statement that notes many of the students involved in the lawsuit came to St. John's with behavioral problems, refused to follow rules while at the school and were responsible for inciting fights with other cadets.
"This case has a lot of students and former students involved, so we're tracking them down and getting their stories," said Daniel Zmijewski, a Missouri lawyer representing the boys bringing the lawsuit.
The money Jesse Mactagone's grandfather had paid was refunded without asking, but some families are hoping for tuition compensation with the lawsuit, Jennifer Mactagone said.
Roberts said the school made an exception to its no-refund policy because the boy spent only four days there.
Mactagone's mother said the family didn't think about the money – the tuition, the airfare, the hospital bills – until her father's check was returned. She said her goal with the lawsuit is to publicize the alleged abuse. She said she doesn't plan to settle.
"I said, my God, I can't sleep at night looking at all those little faces," she said. "I will not be gag-ordered. You cannot pay me off. I don't care, you can offer me a billion dollars – it's blood money to me. I want the kids safe."
Mactagone is living back at his home in Auburn now with his family. They have several horses and other animals. He started attending Placer High School in January.
He was always interested in technology. Technology is what's now keeping his legs from falling apart.
Mactagone said he is disillusioned about pursuing a military career. His mother said she asked him if he wanted to redo his room but that the boy said no. A military camouflage net, antique military canteens and an old toy military gun still hang on his walls.