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Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz

Posted: January 11, 2007 03:50 PM

Abuse History No Bar to For-Profit Teen Biz: Arrest Probably Won't End It, Either


Admitting to pepper-spraying a teenager "more than two times a day" as a means of discipline might be seen by some as a bar to opening and operating a school for troubled children. Conceding, on videotape that "from somebody on the outside looking in, I would say it would be abusive," seems even less likely to make you a winner in this area.

And in fact, when Randall Hinton, who made those admissions in a French documentary, sought to buy a military school in Missouri and use it as a facility for "troubled teens," these and other accounts of abuse prompted the school's owners to reject his plan.

That didn't stop Hinton and his associates from the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP or WWASPS) from trying again in Colorado-- where they founded the Royal Gorge Academy in Canon City in 2006 (also known as Royal Peak Academy).

Now Hinton has been arrested on charges of "false imprisonment," with claims that he made a teenage girl lie on the floor for six hours, injured her wrists and denied her medical attention. According to a local television station, a Royal Gorge employee told police that Hinton also slammed a boy's face into the floor until he bled.

Of course, at his previous place of employment, the WWASP-linked facility Tranquility Bay in Jamaica, six hours of lying on the floor is a minor sanction. The owner of that school claimed that the "record" time his program made a child lie on the floor during waking hours was 18 months in an interview with the British paper, The Observer.

Tranquility Bay is also notorious for assaults by staff on students-- one filed a lawsuit after a restraint resulted in a broken jaw. In that case as well, medical attention was withheld from the victim. The program is still open.

A man involved in the operation of a WWASP-affiliated Mexican program that sent teens to a off-campus site that kept them in outdoor dog cages now operates a WWASP-linked facility in upstate New York, known as Academy at Ivy Ridge.

Recently, an Ivy Ridge employee was fired for forcing two teenage girls into oral sex and New York state made the same facility to return some $2 million to parents because it had falsely claimed to be an accredited state high school. In late 2006, the state denied its application to be accredited and noted health and safety problems with training, students disciplining other students, restraint and denial of bathroom access.

The man who runs WWASP's MidWest Academy, formerly headed their program in Samoa. That one was shut down following a U.S. State Department-led investigation which found "credible allegations of physical abuse" including "beatings, isolation, food and water deprivation, choke-holds, kicking, punching, bondage, spraying with chemical agents, forced medication, [and] verbal abuse." Mexico has shuttered three WWASP-linked programs, Costa Rica one and the Czech Republic, another.

But here in the U.S., it's business as usual in upstate New York, South Carolina, Iowa, and Utah-- and Americans can still send their kids to Jamaica's Tranquility Bay. Why is this organization and its employees allowed to operate facilities for vulnerable and disturbed children in 21st century America-- and when will the federal government finally step in to stop them, once and for all?