Parents Divided Over Jamaica Disciplinary Academy

New York Times/June 17, 2003
By Tim Weiner

St. Elizabeth, Jamaica -- Tranquility Bay is a troubled paradise.

A tightly guarded compound in a lovely Caribbean hamlet, it is the oldest foreign outpost in a booming network of behavior-modification programs for American teenagers. Tranquility Bay has a reputation as the harshest of them all.

Many who have been there describe a life of pain and fear. They say they spent 13 hours a day, for weeks or months on end, lying on their stomachs in an isolation room, their arms repeatedly twisted to the breaking point. Others say the program took them off a road to hell and saved their lives.

Tranquility Bay's methods have spawned fierce supporters and critics, none more passionate than the children who have been through the program and the parents who sent them there.

The children say their parents have no idea what goes on behind the walls. The parents say program directors tell them to ignore all accusations of abuse.

"They tell your parents, `Your son may say he's been beaten, but he's lying,' and that, to me, is the greatest manipulation they pull," said Andrew Emmett, 16, of Washington, Pa.

Enrollment at Tranquility Bay, founded in 1996, has grown in the past two years from 140 to 300 youths, most of them 12 to 19 years old. It is becoming a battleground for the warring camps of parents and children, a growing number of whom oppose the program.

That fight may shape the future of Tranquility Bay's parent organization, the Utah-based World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, known as Wwasps, one of the biggest and most lucrative businesses of its kind.

In a statement sent to parents last month, Ken Kay, Wwasps' president, wrote: "The accusations are from students. The parents may believe them, but the parents weren't there." He continued: "The teens making the allegations generally have a long history of lying, exaggerating and dishonesty."

By telephone, he said that he did not welcome new requests for comment, as Wwasps had signed a television contract to tell its story in its own words.

Mr. Kay's son, Jay Kay, director of Tranquility Bay, said in an e-mail message declining a face-to-face interview that criticisms come from "one-tenth of one percent" of past clients - a few people with "axes to grind."

There is little question that Wwasps programs - including two in Mexico and at least eight in the United States, with a total of roughly 2,300 children - fill a crying need for parents unable to cope with their children.

Many parents who strongly support Tranquility Bay, which costs more than $33,000 a year, see it as a near-miraculous crucible for changing defiant and delinquent teenagers. But others who sent their children say the program damaged their sons and daughters. A striking number of youths say that, while the program's goals may be noble, its methods are not.

In all, 32 children and parents spoke by telephone for this article, 23 others communicated by e-mail, and five face-to-face interviews took place in Jamaica.

"I got some good out of it," said Colin Johnstone, 15, of Louisville, Ky., who came to Tranquility Bay at 13. "But it is kind of like torture. It did me more damage than good."

He was not drinking or taking drugs, said his mother, Lisa Todd. He was "just immature." She said Colin had two teeth knocked loose by a staff member's fist and spent at least eight months in the isolation room. "They are very physically severe in Jamaica," she said. "For sure, they did things they couldn't do in America." But, she added, "I do think the program helps a lot of families that are desperate and don't know where to turn."

Oliver Bucolo, 18, of St. Petersburg, Fla., spent more than two years at Tranquility Bay. "You can't go there and not be changed," he said. "The program's intentions are good. They do help some people."

But, he added: "The staff has no training. They know how to restrain kids."

Restraint, as practiced at Tranquility Bay, can be punishing. Many children, mostly boys, say staff members twist their arms behind their backs until their hands touch their heads, inflicting intense pain without bruises.

"You could hear kids screaming when they were getting restrained," Mr. Bucolo said. "It was horrible. They would do it behind closed doors. And say the kids were lying if they complained."

Jill Himmelfarb, 18, of Coral Springs, Fla., spent two years at Tranquility Bay. At Christmas, she graduated, as have one in every five enrollees. She grew to love the program. "The place saved my life," she said. But soon after leaving, she said, she was taking heroin and trying to kill herself with pills.

Deborah Stilwell, 49, of Lake Forest Park, Wash., one of the parents who supports the program, said it was "nothing short of miraculous."

"It was the best thing we've ever done," said Mrs. Stilwell, whose 16-year-old daughter is at Tranquility Bay, on Prozac, but off drink and other drugs. "Tranquility Bay is not cushy," she said. "It's harsh. But it saved her life."

Kristin Smith, 46, of Bradenton, Fla., said her son Zack, 18, had benefited greatly from Tranquility Bay. She said the program was not suitable for children with emotional or psychological problems - although many youths with such problems are there - but for those who had abused drugs and alcohol, like her son did.

"It was the hardest thing we ever did," she said. "It's tough. It's hard. And that's what he needed - absolute strict rules."

Other parents call Tranquility Bay a Caribbean gulag. "It's like a communist regime," said Julie Wilkinson, 47, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., whose son, Winston, just returned home from Tranquility Bay. "The tragedy is that there is such a desperate outcry for help for kids, from parents who are at their wits' end and will do anything."

Christine Smith, 42, of Flemington, N.J., said she sold her home to pay tuition for her son, Thomas Owens, 16. "I was doing research on the Internet, and World Wide popped up everywhere. It looked good, it really did."

She said program officials led her to believe that her son would receive counseling and therapy, but instead, she said, he spent two-thirds of his time at Tranquility Bay in isolation. "They hurt my son," she said. "Dramatically."

"They say the kids manipulate, they lie, they embellish," she said. But so do the program's officials, she said.

"You're paying Harvard prices, and that's O.K. if it helps the child," she said. "But to beat the child, just beat them into submission? If you did this to your child, you would be arrested for child abuse."

Wwasps has sued some of its critics and threatened others. But it is braced for new suits from parents and children alike. One basis for those challenges was expressed by Alex Wolland, 18, of Miami, who spent a year at Tranquility Bay, "The parents have absolutely no clue what is going on."

In his statement to parents last month, Ken Kay, the Wwasps' president, wrote, "We run a tight ship and a tough program where inappropriate attitudes and choices are confronted and redirected and the living conditions are not as nice as the homes the parents had so kindly provided the teen before the teen sabotaged it.

"If these are the accusations, then we have no problem with the accusations. If the accusations are more than that, then there is no basis for the accusations."

In a 1999 interview with The Rocky Mountain News, however, Mr. Kay, who at that time had left the Wwasps organization, criticized its programs and staff.

The staff was "a bunch of untrained people," he said, according to the newspaper. "They don't have credentials of any kind."

"We could be leading these kids to long-term problems that we don't have a clue about because we're not going about it in the proper way," he said. "How in the hell can you call yourself a behavior-modification program - and that's one of the ways it's marketed - when nobody has the experience to determine: Is this good, is this bad?"

That question remains unanswered. No long-term studies of the 1,500 youths who have been to Tranquility Bay, or the 300 who have graduated, have been done. Outside experts say the test will come after Tranquility Bay's youths become adults.

Patrick Quinn, 18, now a student at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, said: "There were kids there who needed psychiatric help. Professional help. And there are no professionals there."

Instead, he said, the staff inflicted pain on the children, mostly on the boys. Among those youths, he said, was Colin Johnstone. "Every night you heard him there, screaming at the top of his lungs," Mr. Quinn said. "There are a lot of kids there who will never be the same."

Some of the youths at Tranquility Bay have histories of drug and alcohol abuse; 15 percent to 20 percent have had a brush with the law, according to program officials.

Many others have never had encounters with the police, or with drugs. They are there, in large part, because of family crises, including the divorce or the death of a parent.

One such child was Tyler Marshall of Tazewell, Va. "Tyler was 12 when he went to Tranquility Bay," said his cousin, Gini Farmer Remines, "and he had never been in trouble with the law. Basically, he did not get along with the woman his dad was going to marry."

Ms. Remines won custody of her cousin and obtained a judge's order releasing Tyler from Tranquility Bay last year.

Tranquility Bay is the oldest of Wwasps' surviving overseas operations. Wwasps affiliates in Mexico and the Czech Republic have shut down under government pressure; its Costa Rica program closed after a revolt by students last month. In the United States, the organization has affiliated programs, some of which are brand-new, in Utah, Montana, New York, California, Iowa and South Carolina, according to public records.

With a payroll estimated at $1 million a year, and gross annual revenues approaching $10 million, Tranquility Bay is by far the leading economic power in St. Elizabeth, a poor parish on Jamaica's southern shore, where farms are failing and the sea is fished out.

It employs more than 150 Jamaicans, some of whom wear crisp white shirts emblazoned with a patch reading, "Tranquility Bay - Working for the Future of the World." Several have been dismissed recently after being accused of assault or selling drugs, according to two parents and one government official.

Throughout the Wwasps network in the United States and Mexico, many youths say, Tranquility Bay is held out as a warning.

"They threaten you with Tranquility Bay," said Andrew Emmett, who said he was briefly transferred here after attending Carolina Springs Academy, a Wwasps program in South Carolina. "They tell you they can twist up and grind your body and never leave a mark."

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