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Science & Ideas; Education
The toughest cases find a home away `Therapeutic’ boarding schools are on the rise; Cummington, Mass.
David L. Marcus

10/02/2000
U.S. News & World Report
(Copyright 2000)

CUMMINGTON, MASS.—For Karl Schlachter it happened sometime between elementary school, when he was in the gifted-and-talented program, and high school, when he failed two drug tests. Bored in classes and aching to be part of a cool crowd, Schlachter skipped school, broke curfews, and snorted cocaine. His parents alternately tried to discipline him and befriend him—his mother even joined him in a scuba class. But by the spring of 1999, the Schlachters just couldn’t handle their son anymore. They packed him up and had him driven to a special boarding school in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. Fifteen months of strict rules, group therapy, and demanding classes later, Karl Schlachter is exercising instead of doing drugs, studying with newfound zeal, and building genuine friendships. “I look back sometimes,” he says, “and think, `How could I have been so blind to what I was doing to my parents?’ ”

Schlachter’s turnaround happened at the Academy at Swift River, one of three dozen therapeutic boarding schools that have opened across the nation in the past decade. They mix counseling with academic rigor in an effort to put troubled teens back on track. The programs, which last up to two years and mostly take both boys and girls 13 and older, cost as much as $5,000 per month. Yet the schools report as many as three applicants for every space. “I’m seeing more despair coming through our doors than ever before,” says Swift River’s headmaster, Rudy Bentz, who has spent 20 years in alternative education programs for adolescents. By several measures—including a decline in teen pregnancies and drunk-driving incidents—America’s teenagers are doing better and better.

But there is a subgroup that is in serious trouble, if not yet criminal trouble. These are the kids with discipline problems and Internet addictions, the ones who try everything from the drug ecstasy to sex with strangers, looking for a high, a connection, anything that might make them feel good. Psychologists say these kids share one trait: poor self-esteem. But in other ways they vary greatly. Some have parents too authoritarian and removed, others too lax—to the point of viewing pot-smoking as family recreation. Many have deep-rooted psychological issues, such as anxiety disorders or depression.

Then there are the victims of “affluenza”: In middle-and upper-middle-class families, “parents are working more and have less time at home with the kids,” says Prof. Michael Nakkula of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, who studies alternative programs for teenagers. Without adult supervision, there are plenty of opportunities for these teenagers to go on drinking binges, abuse prescription medicines, or gamble online. Darren Schreiber is somewhat typical of these kids. He grew up in a Mercedes-lined neighborhood near New York City and was three grade levels ahead in math, but he had trouble writing and struggled with attention deficit disorder. At the same time, he felt immense pressure to live up to an older brother whom everyone described as perfect. Schreiber started to use drugs and made unsavory friends in online chat groups. When he enrolled at Idaho’s Boulder Creek Academy and had to trade his oversized hip-hop clothes for plain blue jeans and a white T-shirt, he was outraged. (His mother, Ruth, also had doubts: “He was chopping wood and cleaning out pigpens and I said, `This is what we’re spending $60,000 a year for?’ “) But Darren soon gained confidence and became a passionate writer and public speaker. Now 20, he is in his second year at an engineering college. Choices.

Therapeutic schools were born of the educational innovations of the 1960s. For decades, troubled teens had been sent away to military academies or reform schools. Partly for insurance reasons, increasing numbers of truculent children ended up in psychiatric wards. But reports of violence and overmedication prompted parents to look for other options, like CEDU, the granddaddy of therapeutic schools, which opened more than 30 years ago in California’s San Bernardino Mountains. It drew on Freud, Erik Erikson, and poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran and provided therapy, wilderness adventure, and—perhaps most important—minute-by-minute structure.

Today’s boarding schools often start with a rugged outdoors program that teaches creative problem-solving. Then the students settle on campus, where TV is limited to one hour a week, and even the chance to choose what music to listen to is a privilege that has to be earned. Unlike traditional reform schools, the therapeutic programs summon parents every few months for family discussions. At Swift River, rule breakers have to do chores, and every student spends five weeks building homes for poor families in Central America. But at the Elan School in Poland, Maine, students have been sent to a makeshift boxing ring to work out their aggression. (Elan defends its methods, while graduates debate on a Web site whether they were helped or emotionally abused there.) “Parenting by proxy.”

How effective are therapeutic schools? David Sandelli, 16, who spent three years at two therapeutic boarding schools in Connecticut and Georgia, says, “Kids just lie to get through, but they screw up when they get out.” Critics say the schools also allow parents to avoid their responsibility by shipping away difficult children for treatment instead of addressing underlying problems at home. “Some of [the families] are parenting by proxy,” says Brian Bumbarger of Pennsylvania State University’s Prevention Research Center. (Recently, in fact, Swift River decided that parents, not escort services like the one that brought Karl Schlachter, must deliver new students.)

But others insist that many kids need a new set of role models and a break from the stresses of family life. Virginia Reiss, a Marin County, Calif., psychologist, says she has seen several dozen teenagers rescued by the boarding schools. The combination of discipline, outdoor expeditions, and soul-searching “does very good things for the majority of kids who are acting out,” though it is less effective for treating addictions, says Keith Russell, a researcher at the University of Idaho’s Wilderness Research Center.

As for Schlachter, 18, who finished at Swift River in July, he is thriving at college. But he is especially proud that he’s learned to talk honestly with his mother and father, instead of manipulating and lying to them. Although they went into debt to pay for Swift River, his parents are relieved. “The way he cares about people and shows curiosity reminds me of how he was as a child,” said his mother, Nancy. “I finally have my son again.”

Picture: Karl Schlachter came to the Academy at Swift River in Cummington, Mass., to turn his life around. (Michele McDonald for USN&WR)

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