Teens' 'prison' closed

Schools for rebellious teenagers are accused of taking drastic, abusive measures

National Post/June 6, 2003

By Julie Smyth

[Mrs. S], a New York mother, had run out of ways to deal with her unruly teenager: She had been to parenting classes and tried a series of private and public schools. Her 17-year-old daughter, [Ms. S], was cutting classes, smoking and taking drugs. When she stole her father's credit card and went on a spending spree, [Mrs. S.] decided she had to take drastic measures.

She began looking on the Internet, searching under terms such as boot camp. She found what seemed like the ideal solution: a "behaviour modification" school in Costa Rica for struggling teens. The Web site for Dundee Ranch Academy described it as a "world-class program," in a "breathtaking, peaceful, safe" environment. It showed images of clean-cut, all-American kids, smiling, playing sports and graduating in their caps and gowns.

The facilities looked idyllic -- a glistening outdoor swimming pool, a nature reserve complete with parrots and tropical gardens and hotel-style accommodations. Teens would attend seminars focusing on accountability, honesty and anger-management. It promised high standards and discipline.

The annual cost was close to US$30,000, but [Mrs. S.], a nurse, and her former husband, a kidney transplant surgeon in Las Vegas, felt it was worth the expense. She sent her daughter without seeing the school.

"She was a rebellious teenager, which I wasn't, so I was not used to it. I was talking to people for advice and they were saying, 'Don't worry, she'll come out of it.' But she was not getting better; she was getting worse. I tried everything," she said.

[Mrs. S.] was so desperate, she hired escorts to take her daughter across the border and had her sedated. "I could not deal with it any more, so I arranged for the escorts to come pick her up. When you call the school, they tell you you can take your child yourself or they can give you some numbers of some escort services that have nothing to do with the school. [Her father and I] sedated her. I told her I was giving her antibiotics to have her tonsils out [but] I was giving her sedatives so she would not kick and scream. It worked and she was co-operative."

The private school has attracted many of America's elite families, as well as a small number of Canadian students.

Amid allegations of severe physical and mental abuse at the school, the Costa Rican government launched an investigation that led to the school's closure last month and charges against its owner.

The Costa Rican authorities raided the school after students alleged they were restrained, forced to walk around the swimming pool 500 times while holding rocks in the mid-day sun, fed rations of rice and beans, put in isolation rooms where they had to spend up to 12 hours in the same position and kept in rooms with up to 15 beds. The local social services department had also been told of alleged physical punishments and overcrowded, filthy accommodations.

The owner, Narvin Lichfield, a former car salesman from Utah, was arrested and charged with holding students in a facility without their consent and violating basic human rights.

The raid on the school sparked a riot: Students who were told by authorities they were free to leave began trashing the buildings. Fernando Varjas, the Costa Rican prosecutor who oversaw the raid on the school, said Mr. Lichfield faces allegations amounting to systematic torture. He said families have told the authorities that some students were denied access to their parents, sometimes for up to a year, were hit in the face, pushed up against walls and restrained until their arm almost broke.

He said the authorities were unable to find any evidence that the facility was licensed by the Costa Rican government or that there were any staff members with professional qualifications.

He said they found bunkbeds stacked in rooms where the close to 200 students slept, as well as bunkbeds lined up in the hallways. A former school administrator told the authorities she believed unfiltered drinking water had led to widespread stomach illnesses among students.

Mr. Varjas recommended the Costa Rican government contact other countries after discovering the school is part of a Utah-based association of 11 schools in the United States and places such as Mexico and Jamaica. The World Wide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools (WWASPS) facilities follow the same model: There are a series of seminars students and parents must attend and students graduate to different levels. They earn privileges and face consequences based on their behaviour. The facilities charge between US$2,000 and US$4,000 per month. Most students take one to two years to finish the program, costing upwards of US$100,000.

The schools are targeted at American families, but there are also 11 Canadian students at the different locations. Foreign Affairs officials in Ottawa were notified of at least one student who was at Dundee Ranch when it was raided.

Thomas Burton, a California lawyer, has filed eight lawsuits against a number of World Wide schools (not including Dundee Ranch), alleging false imprisonment and negligence, as well as misrepresentation and fraud. "You get the brochure and the video and it looks like a wholesome, happy place, an Outward Bound-type place," he said.

U.S. lawyers are also considering a class-action suit involving hundreds of families.

The U.S. Department of State recently issued a notice on the Internet about behaviour modification programs, warning parents that families typically sign a contract that gives the facilities blanket authorization to make judgments about their child's health and welfare.

In Mr. Burton's lawsuits, he names multiple defendants, including WWASPS, various individuals, escort services and Teen Help, which markets WWASPS programs. One suit claims that a child was taken from his home in the middle of the night and later moved to a jungle compound as part of a facility in Samoa, where it is alleged staff taped the boy's jaw shut with duct tape and put him in chains for three days.

The documents allege defendants promised parents a commission of one month's free enrolment, or cash, for new recruits and that seminars for parents were used to "blunt expected criticism from their children" and "convert them into unwitting supporters."

Karen Burnett, of Shepherdsville, Ky., who pulled her 17-year-old son, Nathan, out of Dundee Ranch after four months, said she became concerned when she noticed parents speaking "with a sameness" about the program. She said they would dismiss concerns about the treatment of students.

Like other parents, she found the school on the Internet. Mrs. Burnett, a housewife, used her inheritance to pay the bills, hoping her son would get help for his drug problems. She hired an escort and never visited the school.

She said her son was put in an Out of Population room, which he told her was a 12-foot-by-12-foot concrete space where children are sent as punishment. "For most of the time, he was on his knees, hands behind his back, face to the wall, for up to 12 hours a day. In Nathan's case it was for three days." The reason for his punishment, she said, was that he had traded his medicine for candy.

She said parents are told students cannot call home until they reach "level 3" in the program. She thought it would be weeks but it became apparent it would be months. "They had him on rations. Nathan told me when you get to level 3 you get juice."

"It is really a brainwashing technique. It's to keep them hungry, keep them stressed, break them down, emotionally, psychologically, get them to admit to their crimes, then build them back up. And in the building back up process ... you rebuild it in the way you want."

She said her son was not given any counselling for his drug problems and did not receive a proper education -- she said there were no teachers and the classes were run through computers.

Jeanne Drouillard, who grew up outside Windsor, Ont., and now lives in Michigan, had similar concerns when she sent her 15-year-old daughter Elena to a WWASPS school in New York called Academy at Ivy Ridge. Elena, who was adopted, had various anger management problems but Ms. Drouillard discovered there were no qualified therapists on staff. She was told she could pay extra to hire a psychologist. When she was denied visits with her daughter for seven months, she pulled her from the program, having spent close to $25,000. Her daughter told her the school used a system of control. As punishment, she was fed only bread and cheese for days.

Roderick Hall, a child psychologist, said he has been contacted by children who have been to WWASP schools and believes they are "abusive" in the way they claim to treat students. He said one girl told him she was drugged and woke up at a school in Mexico.

"She told me they were not allowed to write to or call their parents until they buy into the program and to gain privileges they had to ridicule the new kids. They often tell the parents they are treatment centres or boarding schools. They are really neither. I think they are private prisons."

Ken Kay, the WWASPS president, said families' allegations of abuse are "highly unlikely" and said the students cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

"You have to remember the student population we deal with. They are kids that, pretty much across the board, have had problems with being truthful ... frequently that is is why they end up in our schools." He denied that schools do not have qualified teachers and said therapists are "made available." The private facilities have many happy customers, he said.

After the raid on the Costa Rican school, some of the students returned home although many, despite the allegations, were sent to another WWASPS centre in Jamaica called Tranquility Bay.

[Mrs. S.] said she had her daughter "transported" to the school in Jamaica. Tranquility Bay's Web site shows pictures of sandy beaches and children taking dance lessons, reading books, working at computers and playing guitar.

[Mrs. S.] said she still believes in the schools. "They have had 15,000 graduates. I go to seminars for the parents and I meet a lot of graduates and happy parents who are still in the program. My daughter told me when she got restrained she deserved it. And when she got sent to the isolation room or the consequence room there was always a reason for it. And now she does not get sent any more."

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