Rough Love

Kids from South Florida and beyond are sent to Jamaica to straighten up. Or else.

Yet Jay Kay has said that corporal punishment is not practiced at TB and the use of pepper spray was abolished in 1998. "Anyone who saw inside Tranquility would support and admire it," he said in 2003, blaming criticism on ignorance. "Nothing has really presented things in a way that is factual."

Robert Browning Lichfield has spent his professional career in the tough-love business. He opened what would become the first WWASPS complex, Cross Creek, in La Verkin, Utah, in 1986. He launched several other schools in the years that followed, and then in January 1998 — with a small group of associates — incorporated WWASPS as a nonprofit.

Robert Neubecker
Robert Neubecker

Since then, in response to a growing need for facilities equipped to help out-of-control teens, Lichfield has added affiliates — there are now six schools in four U.S. states, in addition to TB in Jamaica. His organization, headquartered in St. George, Utah, earns approximately $80 million per year, according to an article by John Gorenfeld published on AlterNet's Website this past January. It is one of the largest and most lucrative organizations in the tough-love field.

Although all the schools are independently owned and operated, they employ the same system, devised by WWASPS. Lichfield owns many of the buildings and grounds where WWASPS schools are located. His younger brother Narvin owns Carolina Springs Academy in South Carolina and the former Academy at Dundee Ranch in Costa Rica.

Ken Kay, who met Lichfield in Utah, claims WWASPS has salvaged the lives of about 18,000 young people. The curriculum involves "reshaping troubled teens in a structured environment." It includes a rigorous daily schedule, individualized academic instruction, emotional growth and development courses, and physical fitness programs.

WWASPS's literature claims graduates have gone on to attend Harvard and the California state university system. "TB has a tremendous record of success," Ken Kay states, "and a 97 percent parent satisfaction rate, which is very admirable. I don't know of anything where you have a hundred percent customer satisfaction."

Sales personnel offer thousands of dollars in incentives to adults who recruit new youths or host Websites advertising the programs. Some of the parents interviewed for this article attended meetings promoting TB, which are held throughout South Florida.

TB is WWASPS's oldest outpost and has been attended by 1500 students, Ken Kay says. It was opened by the younger Kay in 1997, when he was 27, with a stated mission to "challenge and motivate the student ... so they become mature, responsible, and contributing members of society." Before moving to Jamaica, Jay Kay worked as a manager of a gas-station minimart in San Diego, California, having dropped out of college.

Though several lawsuits alleging abuse and neglect have been filed against WWASPS, none has been upheld. But during the past decade, at least six WWASPS programs have closed on the heels of government raids or investigations conducted by authorities from the countries in which they were located, including Mexico, Western Samoa, and the Czech Republic.

One of the closures was Dundee Ranch in Orotina, Costa Rica, which was raided by that nation's authorities in May 2003 following allegations of physical abuse by an ex-manager. Amberly Knight had directed the school for six months and resigned in August 2002. "The purpose of Dundee Ranch is not to help teens in crisis or their families; it is to make millions of dollars for the owner," Knight wrote in a January 2003 letter to Costa Rican authorities. She also said students were improperly restrained; in one case, staff dislocated a teen's shoulder.

Owner Narvin Lichfield was jailed for 24 hours on suspicion of human rights violations. Though he was later released, the school closed shortly thereafter. The younger Lichfield denied any wrongdoing. "I'm a sinner or a saint depending on which side of the story you are on," he said in 2003.

To help rebut charges, WWASPS has created a Website — — that refutes specific accusations in the media that the program mistreats students. The site also lists tens of e-mails reportedly sent to WWASPS from parents who praise the school and the positive effect it has had on their children.

When Fort Lauderdale resident Winston Wilkinson arrived at Tranquility Bay in May 2001, he was told escape was impossible.

After stealing his parent's car twice, the fifteen-year-old was arrested as an accomplice in a burglary. A South Florida court ordered his mother, Julie, to find her son a treatment center, and with the court's approval, she chose TB. Soon after the court's decree, the pale-skinned teen was told to pack for a family vacation. With his younger brother in tow, the family set off for Jamaica, but Winston did not return home.

For the next six months, Winston says he was allowed to speak with his mother only once — for ten minutes — as a reward for good behavior. Shortly after that call, he was disciplined for arguing with another student and, he says, "just gave up ... I came up with this scheme that I was going to escape from the program."

One night during early autumn 2001, the staff member on night watch dozed off. Winston climbed onto a handrail, to a balcony, to an AC unit, and then onto the perimeter wall. He pushed through the barbed wire, jumped to the ground, and began running. "I got pretty fucking far away," he explains, his brown eyes flashing with pride. "Then I see the staff coming after me with flashlights."

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