Jewish World Review July 9, 2003 / 9 Tamuz, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Consumer Reports

Overseas Boot Camps: Trouble at Tranquility Bay | Jay Kay is probably regretting the day he let a reporter inside the compound.

Kay, the owner of the Tranquility Bay, Jamaica "specialty school" for troubled youth, told London Observer writer Decca Aitkenhead that if people could just see the school where 250 teens are undergoing "behavioral modification," the accusations against the school would dissipate. But no reporter had entered Tranquility Bay since 1998. Aitkenhead was allowed in--to show the world what the embattled school is really like--but Kay vowed that if the resulting news story was unfavorable, "Hell will freeze over before anyone gets in here again."

It looks like his vow will be tested. Aitkenhead didn't see the program as a tough-love haven for kids out of control. She saw, instead, a tough but loveless atmosphere that brainwashes and harms teens.

Tranquility Bay is one of 11 "specialty schools" run by the Utah-based Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (Wwasps). These schools employ harsh discipline in the hopes of reforming teens whose problems range from the life-threatening (drug addiction, suicide attempts) to the adolescent run of the mill (uncommunicative, rebellious, unhappy, hanging out with "bad influences"). As similar schools and programs come under increasing regulation in the United States, Wwasps began to move its operations overseas, opening schools in countries from Mexico to the Czech Republic.

Many of these schools have been assailed by critics. Five have already been closed: The Czech school closed following allegations of physical abuse, while the Costa Rican school was closed by local authorities in what turned into a small-scale riot.

Many parents find these schools on the Internet, and decide to send their kids away--even out of the country--without ever visiting the facilities where their children will stay. Many of the kids' families are riven by divorce. Aitkenhead was troubled by what she saw as many parents' belief that they could radically disrupt their children's lives through divorce, yet remain entitled to those children's unconditional love, happiness, and obedience.

And how does Tranquility Bay

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secure that love and obedience? Aitkenhead found that one of the main disciplinary methods is "Observation Placement," colloquially known as "lying on your face": "Guards take them (if necessary by force) to a small bare room and make them (again by force if necessary) lie flat on their face, arms by their sides, on the tiled floor. Watched by a guard, they must remain lying face down, forbidden to speak or move a muscle except for 10 minutes every hour, when they may sit up and stretch before resuming the position. Modest meals are brought to them, and at night they sleep on the floor of the corridor outside under electric light and the gaze of a guard. At dawn they resume the position.

"...Every 24 hours, students in OP are reviewed by staff, and only sincere and unconditional contrition will earn their release. If they are unrepentant? 'Well, they get another 24 hours.'"

More Observer vignettes from behavioral-modification school life: "In order to graduate, students must advance from level 1 to 6, which they do by earning points. ...On level 1, students are forbidden to speak, stand up, sit down or move without permission. ...[O]n level 3, they are granted a (staff-monitored) phone call home."

Colin Johnstone, 15, told the Utah-based Deseret News that he "got some good out of" his stay at Tranquility Bay. "But it is kind of like torture. It did me more damage than good." His mother told reporters that he "had two teeth knocked loose by a staff member's fist and spent at least eight months in the isolation room."

The New York Times report on Casa by the Sea interviewed Laura Hamel, a student who "said she was demoted from Level 3 back to Level 1 after giving a weeping, lonely friend a hug and a kiss on the cheek at Thanksgiving. Affection of that kind is forbidden."

Three former students at Wwasps' closed Costa Rica school told the Associated Press that punishments included having to"'sweep the sunshine'--use a broom to sweep pavement until sunburns formed" and kneeling "on sharp rocks."

Children as young as twelve years old are sent to these programs.

Maybe these are some of the reasons that Tranquility Bay requires parents to sign a contract permitting the Jamaican staff to use any necessary force, and waiving the facility's liability for any harm sustained by a child. And these facts may also help explain why Tranquility Bay, like many of the harsher "behavioral modification" facilities, often advises parents to use an escort service--i.e. strange men appearing at your bedside in the middle of the night, handcuffing you, and taking you to the airport. These programs often strictly limit contact between parent and child for the first several months or more, and parents are warned that any negative reports their children make are likely the results of manipulativeness. Put together, this is a recipe for avoiding scrutiny and accountability.

So far, New York Newsday reports, seven lawsuits have been filed against Wwasps affiliates, but none have succeeded.

And Wwasps is far from the only group whose schools have run into trouble. Many other "tough love"-style camps and schools have had problems that should give any parent pause--if not nightmares. It's easy to understand the impulse behind the industry regulations that have led some facilities to move overseas: It's hard to avoid regulation and lawsuits when you've got a 14-year-old boy dying of heat exhaustion after vomiting dirt in the desert, as happened at the America's Buffalo Soldiers camp in Arizona in 2001.

Then there was Aaron Bacon, who never returned from the North Star camp. His corpse was covered in bruises and open sores after his death in the Arizona desert in 1994. Then there was Gina Score, who, according to The Progressive, died on her second day at South Dakota's Plankinton boot camp after a 2.7-mile morning run that left her "lying in a pool of her own urine, frothing at the mouth, gasping for breath, twitching, and begging for 'mommy,' according to eyewitnesses."

The camps should be investigated, and graduates and current participants in the programs should be interviewed, for signs of child abuse. And parents seeking help for genuinely disturbed children should look elsewhere. For example, not all wilderness-therapy programs follow a "boot camp" model; some, like those run by the Arizona-based Anasazi Foundation, follow a more flexible model. The National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camps also endorses a long-term, non-punitive approach. Parents can also check out Troubled Children Inc., which matches children with programs suited to their needs. Look for warning signs like sharply limited contact between parents and kids; attempts by the school to turn parents against their children; use of "escorts"; and an emphasis on tough discipline, force, and obedience.

Sunny Jamaica is not the answer.

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© 2003, Eve Tushnet