PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Nine former students say they were tortured at a “therapeutic boarding school” in eastern Oregon, where untrained counselors with only high school education subjected them to “physical punishment akin to a 1950s chain gang.” Oregon shut down the Mt. Bachelor Academy 2 years ago.
The nine plaintiffs are represented by Kelly Clark, a partner at the Portland firm of O’Donnell, Clark and Crew, who last year won an $18 million sexual abuse suit against the Boy Scouts of America.
All nine plaintiffs were enrolled at the academy in the 1990s as teen-agers.
According to the complaint in Multnomah County Court: “This case involves institutionalized physical and psychological child abuse at Mt. Bachelor Academy, a ‘therapeutic boarding school’ for troubled teens that was ordered closed by the State of Oregon Department of Human Services. These plaintiffs, now all adults, had their already troubled childhoods made worse by systematic physical and psychological abuse that goes far beyond any reasonable notion of ‘boot camp’ or ‘tough love’ schools. Defendants program was staffed by untrained, often only high-school educated counselors and instructors who attempted to psychologically break down and indoctrinate children in their care, typically by berating them in the harshest of terms and subjecting them to extreme physical conditions and privation. Plaintiffs were isolated from their families, allowed only very limited telephone calls every other week, which were monitored by the school’s staff. Parents’ were instructed not to believe their children if they reported malfeasance or abuse – the children will lie, it is all apart of the treatment process – or so the parents were told by the school’s staff. In fact, plaintiffs were denied basic medical care, and run through a battery of ‘Lifestep’ group encounters that ran for days at a time with no breaks, where little or no sleep permitted, very little food provided, and required traumatizing activities, such as making known victims of child sexual abuse act out sexual propositioning and activities on or with other residents as well as adult staff. Discipline consisted of physical punishment akin to a 1950s chain gang, being sent out into the wilderness with little or no food or supplies, at times alone, often for days. Even minor infractions were met with complete social isolation in which the child was not allowed to speak to or even make eye contact with anyone at the facility, sometimes for up to six weeks or more at a time. At the same time, this ‘school’ would remove the children from any educational activity during these extended periods of punishment, only allowing plaintiffs to engage in self-abusing personal examinations while in isolation, and left them without transferable academic credits. In short, Mt. Bachelor Academy was no school at all, and only made things worse psychologically for these plaintiffs.”
The Lifesteps program features a series of seven multi-day group encounter sessions during which students were subjected to “temperature extremes, meal deprivation, sleep deprivation, denial of restroom use, and rotted food, as well as denigrating, cruel, and abusive shouting,” according to the complaint.
During one Lifestep session, plaintiff MLM – a teen-age girl who had been raped by her father – was forced to spread her legs in front of each of the 15 male participants and their adult male counselor and say, “This leg is Christmas, this leg is New Years, why don’t you come and see me between the holidays,” according to the complaint.
“(K)nowing of this earlier abuse, defendants proceeded to require her counselors and fellow residents to call her names such as ‘whore’ and ‘slut,’ and told that her rape by her father was her own fault,” the complaint adds.
Counselors forced her to repeat her invitation to come see her between the holidays if she did not show “sufficient enthusiasm,” the complaint states: “Plaintiff MLM was forced to repeat this process with all of the males in the room 15 times during one ‘Lifestep’ encounter, and was required to start the cycle over and over again during these 15 times because she either lacked sufficient enthusiasm for staff, or she began to sob uncontrollably due to her prior abuse and being forced to sexually proposition adult men. Plaintiff MLM was required to go through this ‘Lifestep’ an additional two times after expressing her ongoing depression to staff at various times. Defendants also engaged in forced isolation of plaintiff by forbidding her any interaction with her fellow residents, including a period lasting approximately two and a half weeks on at least one occasion and an extended period when MLM was deeply depressed and suicidal from the effects of the program. This list of abusive acts is not exclusive.”
At other Lifestep sessions, the teens were forced to submerge themselves in troughs of partially frozen water or stay out all night long in frigid conditions wearing only shorts and T-shirts. They also had to participate in “rebirthing rituals” where they had to rip their way out of sheets held down by other students and staff.
Academy staff denied medical attention to students, confiscated the inhaler from a teen who suffered acute asthma attacks brought on by the stress of Lifestep sessions and withholding another student’s psychiatric medication, causing him to suffer life-threatening seizures, according to the 52-page complaint.
“Plaintiffs – all minors at the time-were subjected to physical abuse including but not limited to: exposure to the elements; extreme cold; extreme heat; forced standing; forcible and unnecessary physical restraint; denial of meals; sleep deprivation; light deprivation; sound torture; forced marches; strip searches; ingestion of spoiled or rotting food; forcing the plaintiffs to beat on inanimate objects until their hands bled; forcing other residents to physically attack or restrain plaintiffs; denial of restroom use; denial of prescription medication; and extended periods of extreme social isolation (during which the punished party could not look or smile at, or talk to any other residents, and had to eat all meals facing a wall). Many of these forms of abuse were an official, mandatory part of what defendants called their ‘Lifestep’ events – a series of group encounters sometimes lasting days during which Plaintiffs were kept in one room, not allowed to sleep, given minimal food, and forced to endure the various sensory tortures. Other abuses were part of official, sanctioned discipline during which plaintiffs were subjected to extreme forms of punitive labor for no pay, including eight to twelve hour days of such things as digging into the frozen earth, stump removal using hand tools without assistance, construction or dismantling of large rough structures, and moving rocks up and down a hill for no reason only to return the rocks the original location, with only intermittent five-minute breaks and little food during hours of such labor. All of this abusive conduct was central to defendants’ disciplinary and ‘therapeutic’ method, and specifically approved or ratified by all defendants at the corporate level.”
At a press conference announcing the lawsuit, Clark said the nine were some of the most emotionally damaged people he has ever encountered among the more than 300 victims of sexual abuse he has represented.
Clark said that as many as 16 teen-agers have died in the past decade at abusive schools.
The academy was operated for more than 20 years by the Aspen Education Group, which operates 38 residential treatment programs for troubled teens in 18 states and the United Kingdom, before Oregon shut it down. Aspen is a defendant, as is CRC Healthgroup, which has owned Aspen Education Group since 2006, as a defendant. CRC states on its website that it is the largest provider of “specialized behavioral health care services,” with more than 30,000 patients enrolled in its programs nationwide.
The plaintiffs demand punitive damages on 28 claims, including battery, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.