Schools for problem teens inspire debate

July 31, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When the Carter, Fritz and Singleton families decided to seek a tougher solution to their teens' behavior problems, they turned to a group of privately owned, independent residential schools.

The 10 schools are allied under the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, based in St. George, Utah. The monthly cost ranges from $2,000 to $4,000 for a tightly controlled regimen of peer-induced behavior modification. Although the Maryland parents and many others swear by the schools, there are critics who say they are little more than expensive teen prisons.

The schools, located mainly in the West, but also in South Carolina, New York, Mexico and Jamaica, typically keep students for a year to 18 months, and the three Maryland families interviewed swear by them, even though their children haven't yet returned home.

The schools inspire intense feelings, with critics as harsh in condemnation as advocates are in praise.

A Colorado woman has written a book titled An American Gulag, Secret POW Camps for Teens, and Thomas Burton, a lawyer in Pleasanton, Calif., said he has seven lawsuits pending against the association.

Alexia Parks, the author, said youths sent to these schools are isolated from outside communication, subject to severe psychological abuse, and forced to conform to a rigid regimen. "You see children that look calm and happy because they don't have a choice. These kids see enormous violence and they can't tell the truth," Parks said.

Burton's lawsuits are based on his belief that "the representations of what the schools are about are not accurate. They are punitive and employ amateurish psychotherapy, harassment and try to strip [teen-agers] of self-esteem."

Burton conceded that many parents enthusiastically support the schools, but attributes that to "brainwashing." "I think a lot of the parents are brainwashed more than the children," he said.

Carolina Springs Academy, where Singleton's daughter is living among 105 residents, is regulated as a group home by the South Carolina Department of Social Services, said Jackie Kasufkin, supervisor of licensing for the department, since the state does not regulate schools, she said.

She said that after two years of frequent conflict over the harshness of the behavior control program, the school now meets state standards and she has "a very positive working relationship" with the director there. "Within the last year, things have greatly improved," she said, adding that the school now runs "as well as a program of that type can run."

Jean Foye, director of Teen Help - the public relations arm of the association - said the schools are not locked units, but the students are supervised 24 hours a day to prevent them from leaving. After a few months, they typically don't want to, she said.

"It's about realizing they've made some poor choices and they want to make a different plan," she said, describing a six-level behavior modification/educational program.

"The kind of neat thing about these programs is they work with the family as a whole," she added. "There are seminars and workshops in various locations across the country," and parents speak weekly with their child's counselor.

Foye denied the allegations that the schools are like a high-priced prison, and said there has never been confirmed wrongdoing of any kind at any of them.

Even Disneyland, she said, "has a few people who don't like it."

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