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Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz

Posted: January 17, 2007 04:30 PM

Exclusive: New York State Acts to End Abuses at Elan School



The Elan School in Poland, Maine is notorious for allegedly forcibly extracting a murder confession from Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel. According to witnesses, it happened in the late 70's, during a "therapy session" in which he was forced to box fresh opponents while being verbally humiliated until he admitted the crime. But such abuse didn't stop in the 70's: incredibly, the school used "the ring" procedure until at least 2000 with impunity.

During its three-decades-plus history, Elan has repeatedly been accused of human rights violations and severe child abuse. All that time, state regulators somehow failed to corroborate dozens of horrifying accounts of maltreatment, which sometimes came in the form of sworn courtroom testimony.

But following an investigation spurred by my reporting for a recent New York Times op-ed, the New York State Department of Education (NYSED) has written to Elan, stating that it has "compliance issues" with the state's regulations. New York is involved because it uses taxpayer money to send emotionally disturbed and learning disabled children to the school, having approved it as an "emergency placement" for such teens.

According to a letter from New York to Elan released to me today by NYSED, the "compliance issues" include "students restraining other students," excessive use of isolation as punishment, "sleep deprivation" and "students 'counseling' other students and using coercive and confrontational language, which includes yelling and swearing." The letter also notes that Elan isn't providing the required number of hours of classroom instruction for NY students and that students are not qualified as counselors.

In other words, just as former students have claimed for decades, Elan uses abusive, degrading and violent tactics that have long been discredited as therapy even for the hardcore heroin addicts to which they were originally applied and which have no place in the education of the learning disabled or mentally ill or anyone else for that matter.

If Elan doesn't begin using qualified counselors to run therapy groups, bar students from disciplining each other, stop making them stay up all night to guard each other, stop using lengthy periods of isolation as punishment and stop making students restrain each other-- as well as adjust its entire education program to meet state requirements--- within a week, New York will no longer allow students to attend. A copy of the letter has also been sent to Maine education officials.

Let's hope this is the beginning of the end for this senseless relic. I also want to thank the brave students who were willing to talk with me and with state officials in order to help put an end to the abuse of their peers. We now know what works to help kids with addictions, with learning disabilities, with psychiatric problems and behavior issues. It's not abuse, but empathy and respect.