School Climate & Safety

Oversight Sought for Behavior-Altering Schools

By John Gehring — November 02, 2004 4 min read
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A California congressman is calling for greater oversight of behavior-modification schools in foreign countries that serve U.S. students, after authorities abruptly shut down several facilities in Mexico.

Mexican officials closed Casa by the Sea, a 538-student school in Ensenada, Mexico, that specializes in behavior modification for troubled teenagers, on Sept. 10, along with two smaller schools nearby that worked with youths with drug addictions and other challenges. Most students at the facilities were from the United States.

According to the American Consulate General’s office in Tijuana, Mexico, authorities from Mexican child-protective services and other agencies closed the schools. They cited evidence of expired medications for students; unauthorized use of a pharmacy at one of the schools; employees’ inability to present evidence of diplomas or professional licenses; and other procedural problems.

‘Ninth Closing’

Casa by the Sea, located 50 miles south of San Diego, is a private residential school that is one of several under the umbrella of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools. The St. George, Utah-based association has affiliated schools in the country of Jamaica and in Montana, New York state, South Carolina, and Utah that serve about 2,000 students. The private schools, which charge from $2,400 to $4,400 a month, offer a structured program for students who have encountered academic and social problems in traditional schools.

Affliated Schools

Apart from Casa by the Sea, recently closed in Mexico, the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools has affiliated behavior-modification facilities in Jamaica and at several U. S. sites.

  • Tranquility Bay Specialty Boarding School
    St. Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica
  • Carolina Springs Academy
    Due West, S.C.
  • Majestic Ranch
    Randolph, Utah
  • Spring Creek Lodge Academy
    Thompson Falls, Mont.
  • Cross Creek Center for Boys and Cross Creek Manor for Girls
    Southern Utah
  • Academy at Ivy Ridge
    Ogdensburg, N.Y.

SOURCE: World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools
Web site: www.wwasp.com

U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has sent several letters to both the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Justice expressing concern over alleged abuses at several WWASPS schools. The closure of Casa by the Sea “marks the ninth closing of a facility owned or managed by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs,” Rep. Miller wrote in a Sept. 28 letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

“Serious allegations have been raised,” he wrote, “about hundreds of American children who have been physically and emotionally abused, including being subjected to excessive physical restraint, solitary confinement, overcrowding, malnutrition, and denial of medical services, all while under the care of WWASPS facilities abroad.”

Officials from the State Department and the Justice Department have said in several letters to Rep. Miller that they lack jurisdiction over privately owned facilities outside the United States. The only action that the State Department has taken, according to Mr. Miller, was a 1998 request the agency made to the Samoan government to investigate allegations of abuse at a WWASPS facility in its country, which ultimately led to the closure of a behavior-modification facility.

Last year, Costa Rican authorities raided the Academy at Dundee Ranch, a WWASPS behavior-modification facility largely attended by U.S. students, after allegations of physical and mental abuse of children at the school. The facility’s owner subsequently closed the school. No charges have been filed against the owner or other teachers.

Allegations Denied

Ken Kay, the president of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, said no documented cases of physical or mental abuse had been found at Casa by the Sea during its seven years of operation.

“We have been inspected year after year by immigration officials, taxation officials, and U.S. Consulate officials over and over, and there has never been any substantiation of abuse,” Mr. Kay said. The allegations of abuse at other schools that are a part of the group also have no merit, he said, and come from “a handful of disgruntled past clients.”

He said he is in ongoing meetings with Mexican officials, and hopes the owners of Casa by the Sea will be able to reopen the school.

“I understand Mr. Miller’s concerns, but he has disregarded my many invitations to him or his staff to visit any of my schools with or without me, announced or unannounced,” Mr. Kay said.

An Obligation?

Howard Davidson, the director of the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, in Washington, said the federal government has an obligation to protect U.S. students abroad. “We need to be assured that any American children who are in education facilities are not being ill treated,” he said. “That is a legitimate focus of the federal government.”

Rep. Miller said he was frustrated by a lack of action from the Justice Department, particularly after a recent National Institutes of Health panel found that boot camp-style programs, group detention centers, and other “tough love” programs often exacerbate problems for youths at risk of delinquent behaviors.

“A Justice Department that has been as aggressive in prosecuting people suspected of terrorism should have little trouble finding a credible basis for intervening to protect American children,” he said in a statement last week. If the Justice Department fails to act, Mr. Miller added, he will introduce legislation that would “expand federal authority to regulate overseas commercial activity by U.S. companies involving minor children.”

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