By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
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He also notes that parents continue to send their offspring there in droves. "Just from the contact that I have with the kids, I mean, I get many, many e-mails every week detailing very positive experiences."
As for the raids, Kay said in 2004 that they were "unjustified," adding government actions were the result of "overzealousness and bizarre interpretation" of the laws. In an interview, he noted, "No police department has been able to substantiate any claims of abuse."
The issue has particular resonance in Florida, because the harsh tactics associated with tough-love schools similar to those allegedly employed at TB came under intense scrutiny this past January following the death of fourteen-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, who was brutally beaten by camp guards at a state-run boot camp in Panama City. State lawmakers closed the camp, banned the so-called "intimidation and pain compliance" approach, and revamped the juvenile justice system.
Shortly after 3:00 a.m. January 12, 2004, Sheila Lynn awoke to a gentle tap on the front door of her Palm City, Florida home. She stood up from the couch, where she had fallen asleep, and answered the door. In the entry stood a burly fellow named Chris, whom she had met for the first time earlier that evening. The second man was a complete stranger. After welcoming the pair inside, Sheila told them her son was asleep in his room. Then she paid them $1800 to take sixteen-year-old Carter away.
Sheila and her then-husband Bob moved their family to Florida in 2000 from a small town in South Carolina where their youngest son, Carter, and his two older siblings had been born and raised. Shortly after they relocated, the couple divorced. Carter enrolled in Martin County High School, where he earned average grades and developed an affinity for alcohol, cigarettes, pot, and violent outbursts.
In December 2003, "he went on a church ski trip and he got caught smoking pot," Sheila laments. "The minister told me: öYou need to find somewhere for him. He's either going to hurt himself or hurt you.' And I knew if I didn't do something, he was either gonna end up dead or in jail."
So the mother of three plugged the words troubled teen into an Internet search engine and discovered WWASPS. She called the 800 number on the screen and spoke with a representative from Teen Help, LLC WWASPS's main marketing arm. (Teen Help lists TB as a "treatment facility" on its Website.) "They were just wonderful counseling people," Sheila recalls. "[The counselor] said, 'I know how you feel. You need to be able to sleep at night,' and walked me through the whole thing. " Within 24 hours she was reading a glossy brochure about Tranquility Bay that depicted happy children in a wholesome setting.
Before the men arrived to take Carter that January night, Sheila had never met anyone from the company in person nor had she visited the school. Like all parents whose kids attend TB, she signed an enrollment form, agreeing not to hold the school liable for anything that might befall a child in its care.
"[The counselor] gave me the name of somebody who would come and get him," Sheila adds, "but she said don't let [Carter] know, because if he catches wind of this, he's gonna run." Less than seven days later, she had her son "kidnapped in the middle of the night."
The soft-spoken, blond-haired boy never saw it coming. "I wake up and there are two men, big men, in my room, and they handcuff me," Carter recalls, his pale blue eyes flashing wildly. "It's 3:00 a.m., and my mom is standing there crying, and I say, 'What are you doing?' I'm like, 'Oh no, am I going to jail?' That's my first thought. They said, 'No, you're going to Jamaica.' And then I see a big tub of all my stuff. [Mom tells] me, 'You're going away for a little bit.'"
Shortly before 4:00 a.m., the trio set off for the Fort Lauderdale airport, where they boarded a flight bound for Charlotte, North Carolina. From there it was a one-way ticket to Jamaica. Upon landing at the Montego Bay airport, Carter was handed over to a TB staff member who drove him on the four-hour journey to the school. "We pull up in front of this white building, and all I see are these huge gates," he recalls. "It looks like a prison. There is all this barbed wire all around the outside.... And I'm thinking this cannot be good.
"The place looked like a death camp."
Opened in 1997, Tranquility Bay is the harshest of the WWASPS-affiliated schools, according to several media accounts. In December 2004, the BBC aired a documentary, Locked in Paradise, that affords a rare glimpse beyond the guarded iron gates.
Once inside the school, which is nestled above a deserted beach, children are not allowed to leave. Escape is virtually impossible; windows and balconies are barred, and barbed wire tops high-perimeter walls. On arrival, children become part of "families" same-sex groups of roughly twenty kids that are given names such as Dignity, Excellence, Triumph, and Renaissance. Each group is monitored by two staff members known as dorm "mothers" or "fathers."