Schools for Troubled Spring Up Around U.S.

They Vary from 'Lifesavers' to 'Dismal Failures'

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/April 1, 1996
By Susan C. Thomson

Private residential schools for troubled youths - schools like Mountain Park Baptist Academy near Piedmont, Mo. - are springing up all around the country, faster than observers can keep track of them.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of these schools, most of which have been created in the last five years," said Mark Sklarow, director of Independent Educational Consultants in Fairfax, Va.

Sklarow's is an association of 215 people around the country who help parents find private schools for their children, sometimes schools for children they can't control.

He said that he had never heard of Mountain Park, where 16-year-old William Andrew Futrelle II of Boca Raton, Fla., was beaten and slashed to death last week. A Highway Patrol investigator said "Futrelle had been killed by three students who feared that Futrelle wouldn't go along with their plans to take over the academy and get on network television." Anthony G. Rutherford, 18, of Siloam Springs, Ark., has been charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action. Two 15-year-olds from California may face similar charges.

Most schools like Mountain Park are operated for profit, with tuitions as high as $40,000 a year, Sklarow said. Many hire recruiters who travel around the country promoting the school to doctors, therapists and counselors, he said.

In quality, the schools "range from being lifesavers, with fantastic records of success, to being absolute dismal programs," Sklarow said. And there is no national system for registering them - no central source where parents can get and compare information about them.

"The scary thing to me as a parent - as well as someone who is involved in helping place children in educational settings - is we're talking about the most vulnerable kids, the kids who are the most troubled," he said. "Parents are placing them in a blind way. They don't know what these programs are."

Officials at Mountain Park, which has always kept its distance from its community, have made no public comment on the case. The school charges $750 a month and requires a minimum stay of a year.

Will Futrelle had been there only a few weeks when he was killed. In early January he was arrested in Boca Raton on charges of careless driving and leaving the scene of an accident.

Billie Futrelle. Will's mother hired Jack Goldberger, a lawyer in West Palm Beach, Fla., to represent her son.

"When Mrs. Futrelle came in to see me about her son's minor criminal problem, she indicated she was going to place him in the school in Missouri, that it was religious in nature and that it had come highly recommended to her," Goldberger said.

He said he didn't know who had done the recommending. The Futrelles could not be reached for comment.

Roz Lowenhaupt, who directs the Independent School Placement Service in Clayton, first heard of Mountain Park Baptist Academy when it hit the news last week. Once in a while, she said, she works with a family looking for a place for a troubled child.

Such places are increasing in numbers, she said, because "there's an increase in the number of behavior problems with teenagers. . . . Parents are desperate."

Josey Staples, director of Shelterwood in Branson, Mo., agreed. "Kids are in crisis right now," he said. "Well-meaning folk are trying to respond to that, the kids spiraling out of control. Somewhere we have to create an environment where we can help kids regroup."

Also fueling the demand for youth homes are new limits on insurance for hospitalization, he added.

Staples described Shelterwood as an interdenominational Christian home for 20 children, ages 12 to 18, from all over the country. It costs $70 a day - $25,550 a year, he said.

Staples was vaguely familiar with Mountain Park, having known a family that considered it for a child. The family chose Shelterwood because it was not so "highly supervised," he said.

Mountain Park has a school on the premises. Shelterwood sends its residents to public school. Another difference is that Shelterwood rarely accepts students who have had brushes with the law. Staples said.

He speculated that Mountain Park had grown - from 30 students when it started nine years ago to about 200 now - because it has been willing to take some of the most difficult youngsters.

"My heart goes out to them because it's a difficult population to work with," Staples said.

"We know those kinds of places are dedicated to what they're doing. No matter how high you make the fences and how many people you have watching the kids, things are going to happen."

Advice for Parents

Professionals in the field advise any parent considering a private residential treatment center for a child to:

  • Start by having the child evaluated by a professional, such as a psychiatrist.
  • Ask physicians, social workers and educators to recommend treatment centers.
  • Visit any center you are seriously considering.
  • Ask detailed questions about costs, the amount and type of therapy, arrangements for children's schooling and qualifications of the staff.
  • Insist on references from parents of children who have completed the program.

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