MARION -- New Horizons Youth Ministries, a conservative Christian school based in Marion since 1981, is at the heart of a controversy over the treatment of children in its care. But the academy's chief operating officer says problems of the past are being solved and the school continues to care all its former students even those who are now campaigning against the school.
"When push comes to shove, we love our kids," Redwine said. "Even the stinkers."
The school has a current enrollment of 63 children, placed in the school by parents in an effort to remedy behavior problems. New Horizon uses a boot-camp atmosphere to place children onto what school officials believe to be the right road for life.
A handful of protesters showed at a Founder's Day celebration this month at the Marion campus.
"We want people to ask us about our experiences in the program, educate those who didn't know about the program and let students see that we are rooting for them," said Lisa Brown Wilbur of New Castle as she held a sign reading "Stop the Abuse."
The protesters painted a picture of complete dictation, a life completely monitored by counselors.
"They infantilize the students and force them to be supervised at all times," David Hupp of Chicago said.
New Horizons has campuses in the Dominican Republic and Canada. Many of the abuse claims are related to the Dominican's Escuela Caribe campus. School opponents say that having some operations based in the Dominican, where there is no direct outside oversight, means officials can get away with methods that would not be acceptable in the United States.
However, school officials say the program was based in Central America to get the teenagers out of their comfort zone. "The philosophy is this -- sometimes there's so much pain in a family that you've got to get away from that pain," said Chuck Redwine, chief operating officer of New Horizons.
Redwine admits the school's past has not been free of inappropriate treatment of students by staff. He started working at Escuela Caribe in 1981 and left in 1984. Relations between students and staff began to deteriorate at about that time, according to Redwine.
Redwine said the home life director had gotten tired and the couple overseeing the teenagers lost control of them. He also described the time as being more violent, and admits that wrestling matches took place, pitting staff against students.
Working to correct mistakes
Redwine says he has worked to make changes so past mistakes won't happen again. Staff members now receive six weeks of training; before they received little or none.
Former student David Gann, who graduated in May this year, said the program did go too far sometimes and recounted one incident where he was thrown to the ground by his shirt because he stepped in front of a woman.
Unlike the detractors, though, Gann said that overall the school helped turn him around from what would have been a destructive lifestyle.
"Overall, it did its job well," Gann said. "It wasn't perfect, you know, it wasn't fun, but for what needed to happen in my life and my family's life ... it did it very well."
Gann said he could understand how some people could feel abused by the program but that he would still recommend it.
Rules for restraining children have become more stringent -- in the 1980s, employees would often physically fight with students when they began to act violently.
The school's policy now says two adults must be involved in the restraint, and that physical contact must be a last resort. Staff training includes techniques to calm students down.
Redwine has also tried to encourage an open-door policy by the school, he said.
All of the New Horizons schools are accredited, and the governments inspect the schools in Indiana and Canada yearly.
Redwine is now in talks with an accreditation council to review the non-academic portion of Escuela Caribe. Otherwise, the school relies on checks by the U.S. Consulate in the Dominican as some degree of outside oversight there.
The U.S. Consulate says that it has not seen any behavior that would cause concern.
But perhaps the biggest change for the school's program has yet to come. The school is abandoning the practice of hitting students with a leather paddle.
If students do something wrong the school's program requires they face consequences.
Punishment can be anything from writing a sentence repeatedly to swats -- use of the paddle to strike a student's bottom and upper legs.
Redwine said the school does plan on doing away with the swats, which most of the detractors have spoken out against. But he said the school does not intend to lighten up on students.
When students first enter, they are put at the bottom of a ranking scale that has them following a military lifestyle. Beds must be made with sheets tucked in with 45-degree corners. Shirts must all hang facing the same way. Labels on toiletry bottles must be pointed outward.
Initially the structure overtakes the student, Redwine said.
"Boom, 6 o'clock, you jump out of bed and everyone around you explodes and begins to make their beds," he said.
For new students, life is especially strict. They are required to ask for permission to do the most basic of tasks -- entering and leaving a room, beginning to eat and going to the bathroom.
Current student Kelsey Frey, 16, said she had a hard time adjusting, but in the end the schedule helped her organize her life.
"When I first came, I was like 'Are you serious?'" Frey said. "It really just helps you get into a routine ... and it kind of makes you better, a more responsible person."
Part of the reasoning for the severity, Redwine said, is to make sure the youths, who are usually angry at being sent away from home, don't react violently and do something that could hurt themselves or someone else. But the school also wants students submitting to structure and authority.
"First thing you have to do when you have kids in chaos is you have to get order out of the chaos," Redwine said.
Students are evaluated with a point sheet on issues such as cooperation, respect for others, hygiene and honesty. If they earn enough points, they can increase their rank and earn more freedom and privileges.
Polly Craig, director of admission at the Youth Opportunity Center in Muncie, says her program utilizes many of the techniques New Horizons practices.
For instance, students at the YOC also have to ask when they can eat and leave a room, she said.
"That's pretty much the norm," she said.
The YOC also has a strict schedule and makes students do chores as a way of teaching them responsibility.
Cathy Grahm, executive director of IARCCA -- the Indiana Association of Residential Child Care Agencies, which accredits New Horizons -- said using a level system to encourage changes in behavior is common. The policy of two-person restraints is also common and would have been approved, along with all of New Horizons practices, in the school's license with the Indiana Department of Child Services.
However, it is not unusual for people to see the programs as going too far.
"I can tell you through 25 years of experience, sometimes allegations are made that sound very fantastic and something's misinterpreted or misconstrued along the way," Grahm said.
That's not to say real problems do not happen at the school, she said, but as for New Horizons, just one person has ever filed a complaint with her office, and the person had not been a student or a parent of a student.
The Marion campus has had its problems. In 1994, New Horizons employee Rob George, who now works as a copy editor for The Star Press, was convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor. The conviction sprang from one occasion, when George kissed a 15-year-old female student and fondled her breast over her clothing. He says that he had no other sexual contact with students.
George was in the Dominican for all but about a year from 1989 to 1993. The incident took place when he worked as a house father in 1994 in Marion. He pleaded guilty and spent three years in counseling, along with serving six months in jail.
"I really feel sad and ashamed it happened," he said.
Although most house fathers truly loved the students, George said, he knew of two or three who were on power trips. He said he could easily picture them forcing students to do humiliating things -- such as urinate on themselves.
Criticism continues A year ago freelance journalist Julia Scheeres published a book, Jesus Land. The book documents the time she and her brother spent at Escuela Caribe.
According to the book, her brother and she suffered physical abuse from New Horizons. At one point, she writes about her brother getting punched in the stomach after failing to answer a question in class.
About 25 former students have written about their time at the program at www.nhym-alumni.org, a Web site devoted to school opponents. Most report being there from 1991 to 1997. The most current former student on the site left in 1999.
Scheeres has bitter memories of the founder.
"I have nothing but contempt for the school's happily-deceased founder, Gordon Blossom, who threatened to 'strip me naked and beat me black and blue' when I was 17," Scheeres wrote in her online blog. "Too bad his reform school cash cow didn't die along with him."
School officials are unsure just how successful the campaign against them has been.
Enrollment has been down by about 20 students, Redwine said, but the drop started several years ago, before the negative publicity.
The school was first established in the Caribbean 1971 by Blossom. Generally students come from the Midwest, but some current students are from California, New York and Alaska, Hatland said. Most students come to the school through word-of-mouth from former students, parents and staff members, she said.
The school has a maximum tuition of $6,000 a month per student, although the tuition is based on the parents' income.
In an attempt to combat the negative publicity, New Horizons plans on adding a link on its Web sites where former students, parents and staff members can leave positive feedback. Otherwise, Redwine said the school has stopped trying to address the complaints.
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