One School That Relies on Therapy

New York Times/May 9, 2003
By Tim Weiner

Bahia De Kino, Mexico -- Joe Quaglio, a 17-year-old from the suburbs who acts like he grew up in the ghetto, is standing in front of his peers, 15 teenage boys, throwing his old life away.

Newspaper clippings about old friends, one shot in a drug deal, one serving 30 years in jail, flutter out of his hands and into the trash. Out goes an old journal. Out go the Chuck Taylor sneakers and an old gang bandana.

His fellow students embrace him. This ritual takes him one step toward graduating from one of the only schools in the world that would have had him: Positive Impact, on the shores of the Sea of Cortes, a long way from the culture and conflicts of the United States.

While bigger institutions like Casa by the Sea offer behavior-modification programs, there are other schools with a different approach toward teenagers in trouble. One of the best, in the opinion of several educational consultants in the United States whose profession is matching teenagers and parents with such schools, is Positive Impact.

A four-year-old school with 60 boys, 60 miles from the nearest city, Hermosillo, Mexico - the school relies on individual and group therapy, not behavior modification. The mood is one of cooperation, not control. Staff members have undergraduate and graduate degrees in fields like psychological counseling and education. Almost all the boys here are from well-to-do families - they have to be, because tuition at Positive Impact runs close to $60,000 a year. Many of the boys say they started drinking and taking drugs at 12.

Hughes Pope, an intelligent, friendly, calm 17-year-old from Greenland, N.H., said he started smoking and selling marijuana in eighth grade, five years ago, and hit bottom when he stole his father's prescription pain pills.

"My parents were at a loss as to what to do with me, and I knew I was driving a wedge between them," he said, gazing out to sea. "It was a never-ending battle. My plan was to wear my parents down to where they didn't care anymore."

Then, last year, an escort service - two big men, hired by his parents - took him from his home into a nine-week wilderness camp in Utah called Second Nature. After that experience sobered him, he arrived at Positive Impact.

"There has never been any abuse here," he said. "People back home thought I was going to come back a therapeutic zombie. But there are clear-cut expectations here. People are focused. You learn to live."

After a year at Positive Impact, he and his teachers said, he is headed home, without formally graduating from the program, to a different high school in New Hampshire and later, he expects, a small liberal arts college. The alternative, he said, would have been prison or worse.

Not all the students are success stories, and not all will be, said the school's director, John Andersen. About a third graduate from the program. There are no long-term studies showing how these teenagers will fare as adults.

But Joe Quaglio - Q, to his friends - says he is coming out of a hard, ugly cocoon.

He used to live in a state of rage, he said, adding, "Jail or death were my only two options." His friends and his teachers say they think he now has a chance to make it.

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