Documentary Shines Harsh Light on a School for Troubled Teens

By Mark Walsh — July 30, 2014 5 min read
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Residential treatment programs for youths—"therapeutic” boarding schools, boot camps, wilderness camps—have been the subject of some enlightening TV newsmagazine reports in the past.

They also have been studied by the Government Accountability Office and the target of a bill in Congress. There was even a storyline on “The Sopranos” touching on such a program, when the son of the gay mafioso, Vito Spatafore, was taken to a camp after he acted out as a delinquent goth.

For many teenagers whose parents place them in such facilities, there’s no changing the channel. One minute they’re asleep at home, the next a shadowy group of men are forcibly taking them to an out-of-state wilderness camp, all with the permission of the teens’ parents.

“Kidnapped for Christ,” a documentary airing on Showtime in July and August, provides a disturbing, though slightly flawed, look at Escuela Caribe, a Christian boarding school in the Dominican Republic that appeared to primarily serve U.S. youths.

The school, which has closed since filmmaker Kate S. Logan began visiting in 2006, charged about $72,000 a year (so the film says) to serve youths with behavioral problems using a Biblical approach to education and discipline.

Kidnapped For Christ Official Trailer from Kidnapped For Christ on Vimeo.

“We can take a child just so far, but there’s a spiritual aspect that God has to take over,” a female staff member of the school tells Logan in the film. Deb Hatland, the chief management officer of the school, notes with a laugh that Gordon Blossom, the founder of Escuela Caribe in the 1970s, “was himself a juvenile delinquent.”

Blossom believed in “culture shock therapy,” Hatland says—taking troubled students from their home environment and putting them in a place where the culture and language are different.

David Weir, the school’s director of community outreach, tells Logan that Escuela Cariba is “a place where kids who have been in trouble can come and just get their lives straightened out.”

“You take a kid out of their normal environment, and they don’t get control,” he says. “You do get an opportunity to work them in a different way.”

The film is executive produced by Lance Bass, the former member of boy band N’ Sync who later came out as gay.

Logan focuses on three teenagers at the school: Beth, a 15-year-old from Michigan who suffers from panic attacks; Tai, a 16-year-old Boston native who has used drugs; and David, a 17-year-old from Colorado who was forcibly taken to the school soon after telling his parents he was gay.

David becomes the star. He opens up about missing music and drama and the rest of what would have been his senior year back at high school in Colorado.

“I miss my dog, my piano, my guitar,” David says. “I miss the old days before I even found out I was gay.”

The film is a bit unclear on this point, but it doesn’t seem that the school inflicted any serious so-called “gay conversion” therapy on David. (On the other hand, though, a school official doesn’t have the most progressive outlook on gay students: The reason some teenagers are gay, she asserts, is that they simply can’t figure out the opposite sex.)

David and the other students must follow the school’s strict rules and procedures to advance to a point where they might get to go home. These include cleaning duties, keeping one’s belongings in shipshape, and so forth. While this comes off as a little harsh, I’m sure there are plenty of military schools and even traditional boarding schools with similar demands.

The film’s most serious allegation is that school personnel had a practice of isolating students for serious violations and mentally and physically abusing them.

Hatland, the schools chief management officer, tells Logan: “We all have our perceptions. I would tell you, we are not a perfect organization, and that we all make mistakes. There are things that have happened here, and that will happen here in the future, that shouldn’t happen.”

The biggest mystery, not quite explained, is why Escuela Caribe would welcome a filmmaker like Logan in the first place. There are even times when school officials realize that documentary cameras are trained on them or on some potentially embarrassing activity and they ask each other questions along the lines of “Are we OK with this being filmed?”

While Logan was able to conduct her interviews with students privately at first, the school eventually started making sure a faculty member monitored each interview, which as Logan notes, killed the potential for frank exchanges.

Some critics have questioned Logan’s insertion of herself in the film. I don’t think there was any way she could have avoided doing so. After the interview monitoring began, Logan sought to circumvent it by leaving her camera on a tripod (but turned on) while she struck up (and recorded) casual conversations with her student subjects.

The film takes a more dramatic turn when Logan gets involved in trying to free David from the school, with the help of some of his friends from Colorado. Even after David turns 18, he has difficulty getting out, and the final third of the film or so is devoted to that tale and what happened when he returned to the United States.

We never hear from David’s parents. If Logan tried to get their side of the story, she doesn’t say so in the film.

The film provides some larger context: a mention of Forbes magazine article about the $4 billion “troubled teen industry,” and a mention of the bill in Congress by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

The measure would, among other things, prohibit U.S. residential programs and American-owned or -operated programs abroad from physically, mentally, or sexually abusing children and bar them from depriving children of water, food, clothing, shelter, or medical care. (A previous version passed the House in 2009 but went no further.) There’s no interview with Miller, though.

In the end, one of Logan’s three main subjects, interviewed again after a passage of considerable time, believes her time at the school was just what she needed to get her life on the right track. (The other two, decidedly not.)

We learn that Escuela Caribe and its parent organization, New Horizons Youth Ministries, has closed. (The film says in 2012; other accounts on the Web say 2011.)

Another organization has taken over the site, and a new therapeutic Christian boarding school is back in business there.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.