One night in 1997, Katherine McNamara, the rebellious, depressive and runaway 16-year-old daughter of a wealthy Silicon Valley couple, opened her eyes to two perfect strangers, who, in her semi-conscious state, appeared to her as if they had been shaped in granite. “Get up,” she heard one of them say with a commanding tone while he was grabbing some of her clothes and shoving them into a bag. “You are coming with us. And don’t try to resist or we will handcuff you.” The chances of Kathy rebelling were very slim because before going to bed, her mother had given her a red pill to swallow and Kathy was in a stupefied state. “Where are you taking me?” she still found the strength to ask . “To Mexico,” answered one of the strangers, a professional kidnapper hired a few days earlier by the McNamaras to “escort” their daughter to Harmony Harbor, a boarding school of a very special sort.
Slavish discipline makes a slavish temper... If severity carry'd to the highest pitch does prevail, and works a cure upon the present unruly distemper, it often brings in the room of it a worse and more dangerous disease, by breaking the mind; and then, in the place of a disorderly young fellow, you have a low spirited moap'd creature, who, however with his unnatural sobriety he may please silly people, who commend tame unactive children, because they make no noise, nor give them any trouble; yet at last, will probably prove as uncomfortable a thing to his friends, as he will be all his life an useless thing to himself and others... Beating them, and all other sorts of slavish and corporal punishments, are not the discipline fit to be used in the education of those we would have wise, good, and ingenuous men...
John Locke, 1692
According to Alexia Parks, a fiery advocate of adolescents’ freedoms and author of An American Gulag, an American teenager is kidnapped every 5 minutes to be “disappeared” by his parents to one of the 2000 “specialty schools” scattered in the depths of the least populated states of this country and abroad. Sometimes handcuffed or drugged, these teenagers haven’t committed any crimes, sometimes barely a misdemeanor. But because they have smoked marijuana, drunk alcohol, failed classes or been truant or defiant, their parents panic, believing the children have begun a deadly downward spiral.
It is usually by word of mouth or in a counselor’s office that parents first hear of the camps. Two choices are then presented to them: for an amount varying between $1,500 and $5,000 per month, they can commit their children to a so-called behavior modification school; or if a short term solution suits them better, they can send them to a 63 days-wilderness camp for about $14,000. There, the young rebels will have to face Mother Nature, eat what she has to offer, hike 12 miles a day, and deserve their salvation by proving their ability to survive in an inhospitable environment, impossible to manipulate. Some teenagers insist they have profited from the experience. Many others, like Michelle Sutton and Aaron Bacon, don’t survive it.
According to testimony gathered from former students of specialty boarding schools in Oregon, Missouri, Italy and Mexico, psychological rapes, physical abuses, sleep and food deprivation are some of the techniques used by specialty schools to coerce pupils’ complete submission. Yet, by reading their colorful brochures, or watching their promotional videos, one would not imagine what treatment awaits the troubled teenagers. The advertisements show youths dutifully absorbed in their books, typing on state-of-the-art computers, or happily practicing water sports, or backpacking. They show grateful parents smiling at their clean-cut teenagers whose lives have been saved by the schools’ programs.
Psychologist Larry Brendtro, President of Reclaiming Youth International, a non-profit research, training, and advocacy group in the field of troubled children, says some parents are so desperate that when someone comes along offering to turn their child into a model citizen, they'll sign on the dotted line. They are easy targets for skilled promoters who know precisely how to play on parents' fears and hopes.
Some boarding schools are more religion oriented while others focus on group therapy. Their methods don’t differ much. Upon arrival, teenagers are assigned a “buddy” from whom they can’t, under any circumstances, even the most intimate, move away more than arm’s length. Says Kathy McNamara: “At Harmony Harbor, girls learned that they had to drop immediately to the ground with their hands blocking their side vision if any boys walked past them”. The “impact” period is the most brutal. New students are deprived of basic freedoms like talking or making eye contact. Communications with the outside world are severed. Teens have to wait months before being allowed to call their parents. When they finally earn that privilege, its taste is bitter: conversations cannot exceed 15 minutes a month and they are monitored. Incoming and outgoing letters are censored. Negative comments are erased, complaints are punished. Parents are kept in the dark. They have been convinced that their intervening would compromise the chances of success for their teens. When, after three or four months, they are finally allowed a first visit, their children have often already sold their soul to the school's program --some out of fear, others as the price to be paid for release. Based on a "level system," the programs typically reward the vilest instincts while punishing the most admirable. Students are expected to denounce those of their peers who remain defiant. A denunciation earns two points which leads to a superior level, bringing with it certain privileges of which the most coveted is the “junior staff” status: warden, in other words. But even wardens can be demoted at any given time.
Only sixty miles separate Harmony Harbor from the California border. The distance is nevertheless long enough to destabilize students who become “easier to control when they are uprooted from their environment,” acknowledges G. D., Harmony Harbor’s director. Nestled between a toll road and a carved cliff, Harmony Harbor’s buildings remain invisible behind high walls. There is no sign indicating the nature of the fortress-like institution where 400 teenagers of all nationalities are locked up, most of them against their will. If it wasn’t for the surf crashing on the cliff, or the cars racing by, oblivious of what is taking place behind these imposing gray walls, not a sound would be heard. No music, no voices. Harmony Harbor is shrouded in silence. Intruders are kept at bay by a Mexican guard who started to mentally register my plate number as I inquired, as innocently as I could, about the school. Harmony Harbor refuses visitors because “they would disrupt activities,” G.D. will explain later.
A meeting is thus arranged in a downtown restaurant. About 38 years old, elegant and charming, the director doesn’t look like a soul torturer. But he presides over others who are, according to Kathy McNamara. He arrives with six junior staff of both sexes and, obviously confident that they will only say wonderful things about the school, he fades into the background to let them do the talking. He is supremely confident of his spokespeople. Generous smiles seem to hang on all the junior staff's beatific faces. Soon, the same words come out of all mouths. It’s a whirlwind of: “the Program saved my life”, “before the Program, I was lost,” “I have finally internalized the Program,” “I found Jesus.” One is struck by their flawless consistency. That is, until Nick, 17, commits a blunder: “When my parents had me kidnapped…uh, escorted...” And he glances towards the director who stares back at him without so much as the blink of an eye.
“We were coerced into using the program terminology,” remembers Kathy, who after 4 months, managed to convince her parents to free her. “Some teens used words without even knowing what they meant. But it was the rule. The consequences for breaking the rules were called 'Worksheets.' You had to sit in a cubicle on a chair, with your behind scooted to the very edge and you could not lean on the back of the chair; instead, your back had to be arched forward in an attentive position and you had to stare at the wall and listen to hour-long tapes. The very least amount of time you had to spend in one worksheet session was five hours. Some girls were in there for weeks and received more consequences because they could not leave to do any tests for school; so they would fall behind in academics, thus receiving more time in worksheet. The only worse thing was R+R -- rest & relaxation!. Basically, it was isolation: you would have to lie on your stomach on the ground in a hogtied position, but without the rope, with your chin up. Girls would be there for days and weeks. It was pure torture and loneliness. They would be watched by junior staff person assigned to the task and have to sleep in the hall with bright lights on.”
Once a month, students attend 3-day seminars. It is during these group therapies that they are first weakened, then psychologically broken by being subjected to loud public confession sessions during which they must reveal their innermost secrets.
“Kids would have to stand on top of a chair in front of 80 people and be interrogated by a facilitator who would perform a psychological rape,” remembers Kathy. “He would coerce the students into revealing their darkest, deepest secrets and fears to the crowd. The audience would then give feedback. ‘I think everything you are saying is a lie and you are just faking it,’ would be a typical response to someone who had just confessed a terribly traumatic event, like a rape. The facilitator would then probe deeper until the teen on the chair would collapse in hysterical crying fits.”
Exhausted by 18-hour sessions after which they’d be required to write 10-page reports while being denied food, the students are soon in a state of mind which is difficult to describe. “To say that they are ‘emotionally vulnerable’ is an understatement,” explains Kathy.
Kathy’s account of life at Harmony Harbor deeply disturbs doctor Brendtro: “The methods which she describes are substantially the same used to brainwash prisoners of war: Isolate individuals from anything familiar, strip them of their personal identity, push them psychologically and physically to the point of exhaustion, make them submit to all-powerful adult authorities, and use pure ridicule and punishment to enforce authority." The 'therapy' described is a version of the 1960's marathon confrontation groups, which are designed to batter down defenses so that persons scream their problems out. Adults seem to have lost sight of their role of nurturing, teaching, and protecting children in the belief that this harsh treatment has therapeutic value. Such programs are highly destructive with certain individuals. Their proprietors have theories that these are undisciplined children (sometimes true, sometimes not) who will only respond to harsh, coercive, intimidating, and invasive ‘therapy’. In fact, such treatments, if applied by the parents themselves, would more than likely land them in jail for child abuse. All legitimate research validates programs that take the opposite track: children are treated with respect. But boarding schools are private and therefore not accountable to regulatory agencies. And by signing the enrollment contracts, parents transfer the legal custody of their children to the schools.
Except for a few resilient activists who tirelessly voice their rejection of what Alexia Parks calls the “private incarceration of children,” the public is mostly unaware of this growing trend and of the countless victims whose spirits have been crushed.
California Family Code Section 7900; Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children recognizes minors' right to not be transferred against their will to another state. But nobody seems to apply it. And authorities balk at interfering in family affairs and contesting parental prerogatives, especially when there is the prospect that defiant teens can be converted into tame sheep.
With some regularity, however, a tragedy forces the public to open its eyes, at least briefly. In April 1996, a student was found dead behind a building at Bear Mountain Academy, a Baptist fundamentalist boarding school in Missouri. He had been beaten to death by two fellow students who wanted to attract media and official attention to their living conditions. A few months before, a girl had thrown herself into the icy pool begging to be left there to die; another had slashed her wrist with a pencil sharpener’s blades. Prison or death seemed preferable to fanatics' sermons and tortures.
At Bear Mountain Academy, discipline was particularly ferocious and absurd when Teana Zeller, a Las Vegas native, was one of its students. Parting one’s hair in the middle was discouraged. Curly hair, dubbed “too hippie” had to be straightened every morning. Pants were not allowed. Large wooden paddles were used to “spank” defiant students. In the dormitories, microphones recorded all conversations, laser beams detected all forbidden movements. “Girls would sometimes urinate in their beds because they were not allowed to use the rest rooms at night,” remembers Teana. Illnesses were rarely attended to because in the ultra religious mindset of Bear Mountain Academy’s owners, pain purified the soul.
“When you will love the school,
then it will be time to leave.”
By telling her story, Teana fears for her life. Tears run down her cheeks as she remembers how her parents drove her to Missouri one day after she had run away to a friend’s house to escape their constant arguments. She was to spend the next three years at the boarding school, her heart filling with paranoia, her eyes with fear, her gestures becoming jerky and unpredictable like those of a hunted animal.
Sitting in a Las Vegas restaurant, Teana seems to be constantly watching over her shoulder as she tells her story. At 23, and against all odds, she is beginning to cope. Her biggest fear is to be locked up again. Five years after her release, she still refuses to enter a car if she is not driving it. She doesn’t trust anybody: “When your own mother commits you to a place like Bear Mountain Academy for her own convenience, and not only refuses to believe you when you tell her what’s happening in there but denounces you to your tormentors for doing it, who can you trust?”
Teana works in marketing now. Of all her fellow students at Bear Mountain, she, as far as she knows, is the only one capable of holding a job. Most have plunged into alcohol, drug abuse, or severe depression. Some, now unable to cope with life outside the school’s boundaries, have decided to stay there as staff members. “When you will love the school, then it will be time to leave,” they were told repeatedly. “But when the time to leave comes," explains Teana, "you have become so frightened by the outside world, you have been so used to being controlled, you are incapable of making the most simple decision. If you would have talked to me a year ago, I would have told you that Bear Mountain was a great school. I was completely brainwashed.”
See "Letter to a supporter of boot camps and wilderness programs," by Jordan Riak, August 20, 2001 at nospank.net/boot2.htm
Learn to recognize 'schools' that aren't schools. Recognize the warning signs. See PARENTS BEWARE.
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