Solitary confinement or timeout Discipline: An American- run academy in the Czech Republic is under scrutiny for the way it punishes students.

Sun Journal

November 14, 1998|By David Rocks | David Rocks,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BRNO, Czech Republic -- When her daughter Marie became too unruly to handle this year, Connie Shallin shipped her to a remote corner of the Czech Republic to shape up.

But now the school she chose to bring order into her daughter's life is in hot water with Czech authorities and disintegrating in chaos.

The American-run school, Morava Academy, was rocked this week by accusations it mistreated minors and held them against their will. Two of its American administrators are under investigation.

If charged and convicted, they could face two to eight years in prison.

Police from Brno, the Czech Republic's second largest city, 120 miles southeast of Prague, descended on the school last weekend and took all 57 students and many staff members to the station house for questioning.

Police also gathered documents from the school and held one of the American administrators, Steven Roach, in lieu of $6,700 bail.

Many parents and administrators at the for-profit facility say the affair is nothing more than a clash of cultures in which the Czechs simply don't understand the methods necessary to rein in wayward teens.

Czech police, on the other hand, say the school, which they call a "correctional facility," is in their country and should hew to its laws and traditions.

"What happens in the United States doesn't interest me," investigator Petr Netik says. "What interests me is what's happened on Czech territory, under the jurisdiction of our laws, of our country.

"They should make no mistake about that. They're required to follow the laws of the Czech Republic, whether they like it or not," Netik says.

Timeout room

Much of the matter centers on the use of a room for what the school calls "timeout" and Netik calls "solitary confinement."

The room, police say, was empty but for a mattress on the floor. The windows were painted so the students couldn't see outside. While in the room, students' food rations were halved. They had limited access to water and other fluids and were given toilet breaks every two hours or so, police say.

In one case, a girl was kept in the room so long without a toilet break that she defecated on the floor, Netik says, and then was forced to stay in the room after only a cursory cleanup of the mess.

At other times, students' hands were tied behind their backs while in the room.

Such treatment, Netik says, violates Czech laws on the protection of minors as well as human-rights provisions of the Czech Constitution.

Academy officials and many students and parents stand behind the school and its methods.

Karr Farnsworth, president of the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs, a consulting firm that advises Morava Academy and five similar schools in the United States and abroad, blames the matter on false claims made by disgruntled employees.

Roach and his wife, Glenda, the other American under investigation, declined to comment, on the advice of their attorney.

The investigation began after three former workers at the school told Czech authorities details that police say were corroborated by interviews with students.

Farnsworth acknowledges that the teen-agers probably had been disciplined but suggests some may have fabricated stories of mistreatment to be sent home.

"These kids are master manipulators," he says. "We don't abuse kids."

"Keep in mind who our customers are," he adds. "These kids aren't wards of the court who are dumped on us. These kids are sent here by parents who care. As parents, they're not going to put their kids in a bad situation."

The U.S. Embassy in Prague said in a statement that it had looked into the school this year -- before the investigation began -- and had "found no evidence that the welfare of any of the U.S. citizens at the facility had been endangered."

Certainly Morava Academy doesn't look like a jail, although it has some attributes of a reform school. The building sits on a timbered hillside above a small lake and resembles a typical mountain chalet built in the 1970s -- except for the 12-foot-high fence surrounding the play yard and the caged guard dog.

Inside, the lobby of the erstwhile Hotel Jelenice looks little changed from when Czechs spent their vacations there, except for an office in a corner and photocopied posters with motivational slogans such as, "To move on I have to let go," or, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

There is no question that discipline and structure play a key role in the program. Students are up at 6: 30 a.m., follow a rigid schedule of classes, study time and physical education throughout the day and have lights out at 9 p.m.

Six mothers who flew in this week to help their children through the investigation depict the program in glowing terms and say the school has given their children self-confidence, taught them to respect each other, their parents and teachers -- and, in some cases, kept them alive.

"Nothing I was doing at home was working to keep her from destroying her life," Shallin says. "Marie was sabotaging herself."

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