Read Between The Lines Of These “Emotional Growth Schools”

Eager for their child’s rehabilitation, many parents are hoodwinked by glossy brochures and the advice of educational consultants.  I know I was.  Therapeutic boarding schools spell R-E-L-I-E-F to a parent who feels she cannot control her child.  In loco parentis sounds pretty good when your child no longer honors your requests.

Why were we drawn to an “emotional growth school?”  Our son cut classes at a competitive high school, was depressed, and we thought the Georgia mountains might be a good change of pace and place.  My husband was originally from Georgia and had relatives nearby.

The World of The Therapeutic Boarding School, According to Paris Hilton

In 1997, celebrity Paris Hilton was kidnapped from her bed in Manhattan and dragged to a boarding school Provo Canyon, a “youth residential treatment center” in Provo, Utah.  Her father, Rick, one of scion hotelier Conrad Hilton’s kids, and her mother, Kathy, a model, without warning, sent Paris to this boarding school for kids as young as eight, because Paris had been sneaking out at night and going to parties. The clubs beckoned for underage Paris even after her mother locked her in her room, much to no avail.

From 1997 to 1999, beginning at age 17, Paris endured abuse at the hands of this school and she wasn’t the only one!  Paris has made a documentary on YouTube entitled “This Is Paris,” that includes this school because she and her alumnae friends hope to SHUT DOWN Provo Canyon.  In this YouTube sensation, the friends of Paris’s regale their tales about the impact that Provo Canyon has had on their present lives:  depression, mistrust of others, nightmares.

Opened in 1971, Provo Canyon, Hilton and others report that they were sexually abused by the staff or other girls.  The graduates call themselves “survivors” or “warriors.”

Some of the allegations of verbal, physical and sexual abuse as well as medical negligence of this so-called “therapeutic boarding school” included:

  • Solitary confinement, a form of punishment in which Hilton, naked, was placed for 20 hrs.
  • Students were drugged with anti-psychotic drugs like Haloperidol.
  • They were smacked around.
  • They were force-fed.

“Provo Canyon specializes in treating students who have the capability for normal functioning, but are not meeting expectations.  They are manifesting emotional, behavioral and learning difficulties and have been unresponsive to out-patient counseling or previous in-patient psychiatric or substance abuse programs.”

My Son’s School Is Also A Documentary:  Hidden Lake Academy

Nowhere as abusive as Provo Canyon, nevertheless, this “emotional growth” school, now out of business, was secluded on the grounds of a former camp.  Not far from the Appalachian Trail, where a few students escaped to, Hidden Lake Academy, was a lock-down school.  Sure, there were field trips in the green bus to museums, etc., but once on campus, you were strip-searched when you were admitted to Hidden Lake and returned from educational trips.

Sequestered, you were not allowed cell phones, music, internet or access to your old friends who could easily influence you.  Students were allowed calls home at certain times, but always with the staff listening in and letters to and from your child were read by the HLA Stasi.

Our son was there for 18 months and we were allowed to visit him on parents’ weekends, probably four times.  During that time, from ages 15 to 17, he was considered a leader in his group.  We thought the structure and the small college-preparatory classes were doing him well as was the required Group Therapy.  You paid dearly, almost $5,000 a month for all this attention.

When we visited our son, he told us how he was bullied there, how there were no counselors, social workers at night, how the school relied on ex-military to keep the students in line.  We thought he was just trying to convince us to let him leave and go home with us.

The school relied on peer pressure.  For example, if someone in your group stepped out of line, then you all had to do “push-ups” on the tarmac in the Georgia summer heat.  As a student, you had a practice called “Fall-Out” in which you ratted on a classmate.  You were expected to report the misdoings of your classmates.

Our son told us that kids would empty their ballpoint pens while off campus and fill them with cocaine that went unnoticed upon return.  No one told us in 1998 that the school was accepting court-ordered violent high-risk teens.  Our son knew it and it was part of his rationale why he didn’t belong there.  We were told our boy was successful and well-mannered.

ALL For Naught?

In 2006, Hidden Lake Academy filed a class action suit because they knew it was profitable for the Director to admit court-ordered children.  The school filed for bankruptcy in 2009 to avoid paying an appropriate settlement to children and families they had defrauded and harmed.  In 2011, the school shuttered.  The staff was not being paid.

Was it a good experience for our son?  He seemed to mature in the face of adversity. He went to class regularly, a refreshing change.  Two of his friends at HLA, also adopted, have remained sober.  A few, unfortunately, are dead now.

Once home, he couldn’t handle his new-found freedom with former high school classmates.  They, accompanied with Ecstasy and Cocaine,  would go to nearby New York City and dance. Later, he got hooked on heroin and crystal methamphetamine that led to daily habits, punctuated by sobriety at times, but led to his death, like so many others.

Like our son, filmmaker Barrett Wolfe entered HLA when he was fifteen years old, but in 2004.  A good kid, who received The Headmasters Award, Barrett, like Paris Hilton, is looking from the outside in this time – through his lens in a documentary about HLA’s abuses.

Wesley Cullen Davidson

Wesley Cullen Davidson

Wesley Cullen Davidson is an award-winning freelance writer and journalist specializing in parenting. Currently, she is targeting her writing about recovery to parents whose children have substance abuse disorders.