Also known as
Teen Challenge, Bonifay or West Florida Boys Ranch
1213 Hope Lane, Bonifay, FL 32425
No legally recognized accreditation
This military school for troubled boys, connected with the international Teen Challenge network, was founded in 1998 by Dave Rutledge and accredited by FACCCA until 2006. Boys are initiated into the program with in-their-face directions from drill instructors and heavy doses of exercise. They must earn their way out of the orange jumpsuits they are given on Day 1.
In 2008, 15-year-old Samson Lehman was exercised until his body gave out. He was flown to a hospital with organ failure, on the verge of death.
Director Rutledge says the school has changed the way it exercises its new students since then, hired a registered nurse and now requires metabolic panels of incoming boys.
The school allowed Times reporters to interview four parents with students enrolled in the program, but only in front of staff, and only as a camera rolled. All parents said they had noted positive changes in their sons. As boys advance in the program, they gain privileges. They participate in sports and take trips to Guatemala. The school enrolled to seek accreditation from the Council on Accreditation a week before this Times investigation published.
Samson Lehman , 20
Jacob McCracken, 23
Authorities prosecuted a staff member in 2005, alleging he struck McCracken and two others in the head and face, choked McCracken and stood on another boy’s throat, almost causing both to lose consciousness. The employee was acquitted, but founder Dave Rutledge said he fired the man.
Nick Roberts, 19
Nick Roberts said he "thought life was all about fun" before he was sent to Teen Challenge in Bonifay. He said the military program taught him there was more to it than that. One of the first realizations came when he opened a Bible to find notes from his mother. He is now a drill instructor at the academy.
Jacob Van Buren, 21
Jacob Van Buren was an angry teenager sent to Teen Challenge in 2006. He graduated in 2008. And though there are things he did not agree with about the school, like some ways boys were punished, he said he changed there. He remembers the moment that it happened. He said drill sergeants picked at him and baited him until he burst out at them.
Of 24 abuse and neglect allegations since 2001, state investigators verified seven, including repeated cases involving physical injury.
DCF abuse or neglect investigations
DCF verified cases
Maltreatment types reported
David Rutledge is a former pastor from the Palm Coast, who, with his family, moved to the Panhandle to develop Gateway's military program, which also offers training sessions for parents. He says he has learned lessons in his 16 years helping boys and their families. But he knows his program works when a graduate comes up to him on the street and says, "I hated it at first, but it helped me get my life back." That, he says, is a normal story.
Group home profile last updated: Dec. 7, 2012, 1:49 p.m.