Shannon Levy-Rowley is 21 years old and five feet seven inches tall. She weighs 108 pounds. During the past five and a half years, she has endured three major surgeries and diets ranging from fourteen weeks of consuming only liquids to sipping blended meals through a straw.
But the brunet's meager weight has nothing to do with a tummy tuck or an eating disorder.
In December 2000, Shannon's parents, Jayne Levy and James Rowley of Coral Springs, enrolled their only child in Tranquility Bay (TB), a boarding school in Jamaica for troubled teens. "I was smoking pot, I was popping pills, drinking, doing acid, just experimenting with everything 'cause I was just really unhappy with my life," Shannon says.
Tuition would cost almost $40,000 annually, but after attending a support meeting in South Miami and speaking with families who claimed the school had done a lot for their children, Jayne signed an enrollment agreement granting TB custodial rights. "It got very good reviews, and Shannon needed to go somewhere," Jayne laments. "I was fearing for her life."
On a mild winter day about two weeks after the Rowleys signed up, three people Shannon had never met arrived at the family's home. "A lady and two big men came into my house and sat me down on the sofa," Shannon recalls. "They handcuffed me and said I could cooperate or they were gonna throw me over their shoulder." The group drove to the airport and boarded a plane. The journey ended in Treasure Beach, a remote hamlet on Jamaica's southern coast, where Shannon spent the next thirteen months. She describes it as an unforgettable nightmare and recalls being severely depressed, crying constantly, and within one week of arrival, trying to throw herself off a second-story balcony.
Shortly after her failed suicide attempt in early 2001, Shannon alleges staff aggressively restrained her when she took a swing at one of them. "One staff held my arms behind my back when I was standing up so I couldn't grab onto anything," she says. "Another staff ripped my feet out from underneath me so I fell with all my weight right onto my chin. I immediately started gushing blood everywhere, but that didn't stop them. They still continued restraining me."
Jayne Levy contends she wasn't told of the severity of Shannon's problems until school officials telephoned on Christmas eve 2001 to say, "You have to come and pick up your daughter; she can't open her mouth to eat. " Shannon could barely open her mouth wide enough to insert a toothbrush, mother and daughter agree. They claim the injuries were largely untreated and consequently Shannon's condition deteriorated. (She has lost about 40 pounds since sustaining the injury.)
Once home, the family contacted Miami attorney David Pollack, who in September 2004 sued the facility and the umbrella organization that represents it — the Utah-based World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS) — for negligence. A judge recently threw out the case against the two, saying Florida is the wrong place to sue them because Tranquility Bay is located abroad and WWASPS is based in a small town near Las Vegas. An appeal is pending.
But about half of TB's students come from homes in the Sunshine State, Pollack says. And dozens of them, including five from South Florida interviewed for this article, have alleged that school staff mistreats students. The allegations have come not only in media interviews but also in lawsuits, in court testimony, and on anti-WWASPS Websites.
Indeed at least six other WWASPS-affiliated schools and organizations in the United States, the Czech Republic, Western Samoa, Mexico, and Costa Rica have been raided and/or closed during the past decade, following allegations of abuse or questionable practices. The most in-depth reports about the organization's alleged offenses have come in foreign-based media; South Florida newspapers and television stations have published very little about the school.
Many former students acknowledge that their bad behavior drove their parents to consider TB, but say the program is riddled with problems. Among their complaints: poor living conditions, including no running water; beatings by staff; and being forced to lie in silence, face-down on the floor in a guarded room for hours at a time — over a period of several months. There are also several claims — besides Shannon's — that kids tried to kill themselves while there. Indeed, according to numerous media reports, a seventeen-year-old Alabama girl, Valerie Ann Heron, bolted from a room at the compound in August 2001 and jumped off a 35-foot-high balcony to her death.
Six telephone calls requesting an interview with TB's owner, Jay Kay, were not returned. Via e-mail, TB staff directed all inquiries to Ken Kay, Jay's father and WWASPS president. The senior Kay denies the accounts of Shannon Levy-Rowley and Valerie Ann Heron. There's no indication Levy-Rowley was injured when she left the school, he says. And Heron, he contends, lost her way and fell from the balcony. He denies allegations students are physically abused at TB, stating it is "against policy." Other allegations, including those described in other media such as London's Guardian, are "fabricated by former staff with an ax to grind or kids proven to be dishonest and deceitful as a way to manipulate their parents and gain attention," he says. "They're vengeful and revengeful sometimes.... This is what they do to make the parents feel bad."
He also notes that parents continue to send their offspring there — in droves. "Just from the contact that I have with the kids, I mean, I get many, many e-mails every week detailing very positive experiences."
As for the raids, Kay said in 2004 that they were "unjustified," adding government actions were the result of "overzealousness and bizarre interpretation" of the laws. In an interview, he noted, "No police department has been able to substantiate any claims of abuse."