Rough Love

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

Susie claims several girls at the school took medication and contends that, with their help, she stockpiled a variety of different pills over the course of approximately two months. Then she swallowed them before lunch one day.

"I remember going downstairs and collapsing in the hallway and the staff came up to me and said, öWhat's wrong with you?' I told them I took 40 pills.... Right there I threw up and half the pills came out, and Jay Kay ran and took me to the hospital." Susie claims she was sent to OP upon returning to the facility.

The teens interviewed for this article allege they witnessed five other attempted suicides at TB. None could be confirmed. According to WWASPS president Ken Kay: "The suicide attempts at our schools have not been any higher than in a public school system of the same size. Now when you throw in the fact that our schools deal with a very troubled group of kids, I think all our schools have a very good record."

Robert Neubecker
Robert Neubecker

In August 2001 when Valerie Ann Heron fell 35 feet to her death, Johnny Dwyer, the Maine boy who claims he was punched at TB, remembers, "We were coming out to the courtyard where we stand after [dinner] for head count, and while we were standing out there, I can remember hearing screaming from the girls' side of the facility. A female staff member came into our courtyard and she said something to one of the staff members and they took off like a shot from a gun. Jay Kay and two male staff members loaded Valerie's body into the back of Mr. Kay's car."

In a 2002 Virginia state court hearing transcript, nineteen-year-old Aaron Kravig claimed he was forced to use a towel that staff had used to clean up Heron's remains. The unwashed towel "had a spot of blood about, somewhere about the size of a dinner plate," Kravig testified. "There was some of her hair on it. They used it to pick her head up — I'm pretty sure. I told the staff about it and nothing was done.... I had to dry off with that towel for about three weeks."

"The police did a very thorough investigation down there in Jamaica on that girl," Ken Kay says. "The last that I heard, they had not determined if it was a suicide attempt or an accident. She bolted out of a door.... I think she had been there such a short time, I don't think she would have been oriented to exactly where she was."

The WWASPS method of schooling so-called troubled teens is not new, according to Maia Szalavitz, author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. She claims the basic notion of tough love is to break someone in order to fix them, meaning "to have a child recover from bad behavior or drugs, you need to humiliate, attack, confront, isolate, and basically break through their defenses to rebuild them as a more acceptable person." But Szalavitz states the National Mental Health Association has found the method — employed by many juvenile boot-camp-style schools — to be ineffective.

"We're selling what they stamped out of psychiatric institutions 100 years ago," she says.

Nonetheless more than 1000 tough-love programs are operated by private U.S. corporations today. They house an estimated 10,000 teens.

The claims at the facility in Jamaica are only the latest. They have fallen largely on deaf ears because, as Miami attorney David Pollack explains, U.S. law prevents the government from interfering in foreign-based programs. However, Rep. George Miller (D-Cal.) is pushing for Congress to pass a bill that would hold Americans who run foreign discipline schools accountable to the federal government.

Indeed in November 2003, Rep. Miller asked then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate the charges of mistreatment at TB. Ashcroft denied the request.

Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Martin Lee Anderson Act into law this past May. It bans the aggressive physical tactics that led to the teenager's death. The bill will revamp the juvenile justice system in Florida to protect other children in the state from suffering a similar fate. It bars use of physical contact like the guards had with Anderson, and calls for medical exams before youths enter and when they leave.

No such protection is available to children from Florida enrolled at TB. And death stalks some of these kids. On June 7, less than eighteen months after leaving the WWASPS program, and weeks after being interviewed by Miami New Times, Carter Lynn hanged himself from a rafter of his Palm City home.

"The school definitely had a negative impact on him, and it played on his mind for a very long time," Sheila Lynn says. "He was very adamant about trying to get it closed down.

"In light of what happened, how I can I comment that [TB] did him any good?... He's not here anymore."

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