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Friday, November 6, 2009

Mount Bachelor Academy: Some Unpleasant Questions

Posted By on Fri, Nov 6, 2009 at 9:39 PM

Things are not looking good for Mount Bachelor Academy, one of those special boarding schools for rich kids with problems. The state Department of Human Services has suspended the Prineville school’s license and told parents to take their kids away.

And this morning’s Bulletin reports that the Crook County Sheriff’s Office is looking at a possible criminal investigation.

The problems at the academy have been known since last April, when a number of students and at least one employee reported cases of physical and psychological abuse.

TIME magazine wrote back then that “according to 10 students, two separate parents and a part-time employee interviewed by TIME … Mount Bachelor Academy regularly uses intensely humiliating tactics as treatment. For instance, in required seminars that the school calls Lifesteps, students say staff members of the residential program have instructed girls, some of whom say they have been victims of rape or sexual abuse, to dress in provocative clothing — fishnet stockings, high heels and miniskirts — and perform lap dances for male students as therapy.” Students allegedly also were deprived of sleep, food or use of the bathroom as part of their “therapy.”

Bend merchant and blogger Duncan McGeary sees a funny side to this, speculating on whether it will add to Central Oregon’s reputation as the world epicenter of weirdness: “Holy Cow. Right up there with the deer fragger, the pregnant man, and the balloon lawn chair guy.”

For me, the story of Mount Bachelor Academy raises some more troubling questions. Such as: “Why the hell did it take the state so long to shut the place down?” Six months seems like more than enough time to either verify or discredit allegations made last April.

And the April accusations weren’t even the first red flag: According to TIME, similar charges led the Oregon DHS to investigate the academy back in 1998.

Second question: Why are places like Mount Bachelor Academy allowed to operate in what appears to be a virtual regulatory vacuum? The company that owns it, the Aspen Education Group, operates 16 other boarding schools and camps all around the country. These programs are not cheap: Tuition at Mount Bachelor Academy ran to $6,400 a month.

Aspen’s website provides no information beyond vague generalities about the therapies used or the credentials of the staffs at its schools. The website’s list of corporate officers doesn’t indicate that any of them hold an MD or Ph.D.

The site does, however, offer an “assessment test” to help parents decide if they should send their child to an Aspen facility, asking among other things whether he or she has “disregarded family rules and parental guidance” or “had problems in school (i.e. poor grades, challenging authority, etc.)” (Try to find a kid, especially a teenager, who hasn’t done those things at one time or another.)

Mount Bachelor Academy and other boarding schools that use a similar “therapeutic” approach also have an unsavory intellectual pedigree.

According to the TIME story last April, “The techniques that Mount Bachelor allegedly uses, while unconventional, are not new. They are similar to the tenets of the once popular ‘human potential movement’ of the 1960s and '70s, which purported to change people's lives through intense emotional experiences. The movement grew out of the practices of Synanon  and other California experiments in utopian living, which later helped spawn so-called large group awareness training programs, such as LifeSpring and est.

“Synanon began as a drug-rehabilitation program before morphing into a controversial cult” – which was disbanded after being involved in various criminal activities – “and is credited with putting forth the idea that confrontation and boot-camp-style breakdown tactics could cure teen misbehavior and addiction.”

“Although many people report being helped by cathartic seminars, studies suggest that programs like LifeSpring do not produce lasting change,” the TIME story continues. “Indeed, in the 1980s and early 1990s, LifeSpring lost millions of dollars in lawsuits related to suicides and psychiatric hospitalizations of participants. Most mental-health experts today strongly disagree with the use of brutal confrontation or humiliation as therapy — particularly for vulnerable youths who have troubled pasts.”

Now for the third and probably most troubling question: Why, after so many horror stories have come out, do parents continue to send their children to these schools? I’m sure most of them have their kids’ best interests at heart – or think they do. But I can’t help wondering how many just want to get a troublesome child out of the way and are willing to pay heavily for it.

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