Shannon Levy-Rowley is 21 years old and five feet seven inches tall. She weighs 108 pounds. During the past five and a half years, she has endured three major surgeries and diets ranging from fourteen weeks of consuming only liquids to sipping blended meals through a straw.
But the brunet's meager weight has nothing to do with a tummy tuck or an eating disorder.
In December 2000, Shannon's parents, Jayne Levy and James Rowley of Coral Springs, enrolled their only child in Tranquility Bay (TB), a boarding school in Jamaica for troubled teens. "I was smoking pot, I was popping pills, drinking, doing acid, just experimenting with everything 'cause I was just really unhappy with my life," Shannon says.
Tuition would cost almost $40,000 annually, but after attending a support meeting in South Miami and speaking with families who claimed the school had done a lot for their children, Jayne signed an enrollment agreement granting TB custodial rights. "It got very good reviews, and Shannon needed to go somewhere," Jayne laments. "I was fearing for her life."
On a mild winter day about two weeks after the Rowleys signed up, three people Shannon had never met arrived at the family's home. "A lady and two big men came into my house and sat me down on the sofa," Shannon recalls. "They handcuffed me and said I could cooperate or they were gonna throw me over their shoulder." The group drove to the airport and boarded a plane. The journey ended in Treasure Beach, a remote hamlet on Jamaica's southern coast, where Shannon spent the next thirteen months. She describes it as an unforgettable nightmare and recalls being severely depressed, crying constantly, and within one week of arrival, trying to throw herself off a second-story balcony.
Shortly after her failed suicide attempt in early 2001, Shannon alleges staff aggressively restrained her when she took a swing at one of them. "One staff held my arms behind my back when I was standing up so I couldn't grab onto anything," she says. "Another staff ripped my feet out from underneath me so I fell with all my weight right onto my chin. I immediately started gushing blood everywhere, but that didn't stop them. They still continued restraining me."
Jayne Levy contends she wasn't told of the severity of Shannon's problems until school officials telephoned on Christmas eve 2001 to say, "You have to come and pick up your daughter; she can't open her mouth to eat. " Shannon could barely open her mouth wide enough to insert a toothbrush, mother and daughter agree. They claim the injuries were largely untreated and consequently Shannon's condition deteriorated. (She has lost about 40 pounds since sustaining the injury.)
Once home, the family contacted Miami attorney David Pollack, who in September 2004 sued the facility and the umbrella organization that represents it the Utah-based World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS) for negligence. A judge recently threw out the case against the two, saying Florida is the wrong place to sue them because Tranquility Bay is located abroad and WWASPS is based in a small town near Las Vegas. An appeal is pending.
But about half of TB's students come from homes in the Sunshine State, Pollack says. And dozens of them, including five from South Florida interviewed for this article, have alleged that school staff mistreats students. The allegations have come not only in media interviews but also in lawsuits, in court testimony, and on anti-WWASPS Websites.
Indeed at least six other WWASPS-affiliated schools and organizations in the United States, the Czech Republic, Western Samoa, Mexico, and Costa Rica have been raided and/or closed during the past decade, following allegations of abuse or questionable practices. The most in-depth reports about the organization's alleged offenses have come in foreign-based media; South Florida newspapers and television stations have published very little about the school.
Many former students acknowledge that their bad behavior drove their parents to consider TB, but say the program is riddled with problems. Among their complaints: poor living conditions, including no running water; beatings by staff; and being forced to lie in silence, face-down on the floor in a guarded room for hours at a time over a period of several months. There are also several claims besides Shannon's that kids tried to kill themselves while there. Indeed, according to numerous media reports, a seventeen-year-old Alabama girl, Valerie Ann Heron, bolted from a room at the compound in August 2001 and jumped off a 35-foot-high balcony to her death.
Six telephone calls requesting an interview with TB's owner, Jay Kay, were not returned. Via e-mail, TB staff directed all inquiries to Ken Kay, Jay's father and WWASPS president. The senior Kay denies the accounts of Shannon Levy-Rowley and Valerie Ann Heron. There's no indication Levy-Rowley was injured when she left the school, he says. And Heron, he contends, lost her way and fell from the balcony. He denies allegations students are physically abused at TB, stating it is "against policy." Other allegations, including those described in other media such as London's Guardian, are "fabricated by former staff with an ax to grind or kids proven to be dishonest and deceitful as a way to manipulate their parents and gain attention," he says. "They're vengeful and revengeful sometimes.... This is what they do to make the parents feel bad."
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."
Multiple guards patrol the grounds. "Staff are hired not necessarily by credentials," states the enrollment agreement all parents sign. And according to British media, workers are all Jamaican and required to possess no more than a high school education.
Life at TB is based on a system of points and consequences. New arrivals begin on Level One and must ask permission to talk, stand up, sit down, use the bathroom. Students gain or lose points based on whether they follow the rules. Looking at a member of the opposite sex, for instance, is a serious offense.
Carter Lynn says Level Ones are required to act like "complete zombies." Even if they move to higher levels and gain privileges, they can be demoted. "This one kid," he scoffs, "got so pissed because he got to Level Three and his dorm guide gave him consequences for nothing. So he flipped [the dorm guide] off, and [staff] swung him to the ground," Carter says, getting out of his chair to demonstrate. Then he clenches his fist and brings it to the ground. "And they came smack-down right down on the kid's face. They drag him out and there's blood on the floor."
Johnny Dwyer, 22 years old, left the school four years ago and also alleges the staff was violent. He now lives with his father in Maine, while his mother resides in St. Petersburg, Florida. After his father caught him smoking pot, Johnny accepted parental advice and went voluntarily to TB in April 2001, twelve days after his seventeenth birthday; his father assured him he could try out the school for ten days. If he didn't like it, he could leave. He was there for ten months. His father was not available for an interview.
"I myself was punched in the face," he states matter-of-factly. "But I will concede that I deserved this one. I used a racial slur to address one of the staff members. I called him a nigger. I was in a study hall-type setting, and I had to go to the bathroom. And the staff member would not let me leave.
"And I said, 'What is this? Some kind of a power struggle, you poor, ignorant, you-know-what?' And that's when he got up and ... he laid a good one on me. Put me on my back."
Johnny alleges such incidents were common, adding staff restrained him numerous times, once soon after his arrival for taking extra food in the dining hall. "I was hungry, because we were kept drastically underfed," he says. "I had my right arm bent [behind my back] in such a way that my fingers were able to touch my left eyebrow. Think of the back of your right hand on your shoulder blade. Now start pushing it up to such an extent that your right fingers are able to touch your left eyebrow from behind your head." Johnny claims he often heard kids screaming while being restrained. "Parents think, How could it possibly be that way? These things are so outrageous how can it possibly be true? That's what this program uses to pit the parents against their children. They say, 'Your child was a liar when he was at home. What makes you think it's any different now?'"
WWASPS president Ken Kay did not respond directly to the claims by Carter Lynn and Johnny Dwyer but said there is substantial oversight at TB. When students' behavior reaches an acceptable level, parents are encouraged to visit, he says.
Yet similar claims have been made in other media. In June 2003, the New York Times published a lengthy article about TB. It states, "A striking number of youths say that, while the program's goals may be noble, its methods are not." It goes on to claim that "many children, mostly boys, say staff members twist their arms behind their backs until their hands touch their heads, inflicting intense pain without bruises."
Complaints come from "one-tenth of one percent" of past clients, TB's Jay Kay said in 2003. They come from a few people with "axes to grind."
Also in 2003, a fifteen-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky, said he had two teeth knocked loose by a staff member's fist. In 2005, 23-year-old Layne Brown told a Missouri newspaper that during a nine-month stint at TB beginning in 1997, staff members made him defecate and urinate in a black garbage bag tied around his waist like a diaper. They also, he says, dragged him across a cement floor face-down, scrubbed his genitals with a hard-bristle toilet brush, and pepper-sprayed him.
More recently, Layne described the mistreatment to a French film company at his home in Kanab, Utah, for a documentary titled Tranquility Bay. Released earlier this year, the film also includes an interview with a man identified as former TB assistant director Randall Hinton, who stated he and Jay Kay used pepper spray. "I think I can remember Layne being pepper-sprayed more than once a day. I know he was pepper-sprayed more than two times a day. I don't think it would have been more than three times ... and from somebody on the outside looking in, I would say it would be abusive."
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.
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 wwaspsrebuttal.com 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."
Winston waded into the water and swam to a nearby peninsula. "I actually made it. But all over this peninsula there are cactuses, and by the time I [got] to the other side, I was already all cut up and shit, and I had stepped on so many cactuses and got bit by so many mosquitoes that I was just worn out. So I just said, 'Fuck it.'"
He was returned to Tranquility Bay by boat just as the sun was beginning to rise. He claims no medical treatment or bandages were offered, even though he had sprained his right ankle and his body was covered in cuts and bruises. As punishment, he was taken to an "observation placement" room. OP, one of the most controversial aspects of the WWASPS program, is where children are sent to reflect. Winston contends he was forced to lie on his stomach atop a towel on the floor he was left for hours at a time with his head turned to one side, arms at his sides, palms up, and legs outstretched. He was forbidden to sleep, rise, move, or speak. Winston says he was allowed to stand only to eat meals, use the bathroom, and exercise.
"You lie down from when you wake up until you go to sleep, from six in the morning until probably nine o'clock at night," he says, running his fingers through his sandy brown hair. "One staff [would] kick my ankle 'cause he knew I had a sprained ankle."
Every 24 hours, he says, he was reviewed by staff. Failure to show remorse earned him another day in OP. He claims he was released back into the student population 46 days later. "I know 'cause I fucking counted the days," he scoffs. Shortly after he was let out, he misbehaved and was sent back; he claims to have spent another 77 days lying on his face.
Jay Kay said in 2003 that "the purpose of [OP] is to give the kids a chance to think.... The bottom line is: What's the end result you want? Getting there may be ugly, but at least with us you're going to get there." He also stated the length of stay is "in [the kids'] hands.... The record is actually held by a female," who, on and off, spent eighteen months in OP.
Shannon Levy-Rowley alleges she was sent to OP in early 2001 as punishment for a suicide attempt. "That's true," her mother confirms. "I was told during my weekly phone call with staff. I mean, for Shannon to try and jump off a balcony and try to commit suicide her first week there and for them to put her in observation placement where she has to lie on her stomach 24 hours a day, that's not how you treat somebody who has a problem."
Shannon claims she lay in an OP room with no ventilation and was constantly monitored. "If we had to go to the bathroom, we had to leave the door open so they could sit there and watch us," Shannon recalls. "I had gotten into a dispute with staff and I had gotten restrained for it and I was still crying.... I fell with all my weight onto the floor onto my chin. It split open and was bleeding.... I needed stitches, but they waited till the whole facility fell asleep to sneak me out to the hospital."
Shannon, who told her story to Montel Williams on his talk show, claims she complained of pain in her jaw for the following year but was largely ignored. "The information that I have doesn't indicate that was the case," WWASPS president Ken Kay states. "A lot of things, like records of weight and followups ... didn't indicate that she was having any problems."
But the Jamaican branch of UNICEF, the international children's-rights agency, wants Tranquility Bay to abolish the use of OP. "This kind of method is definitely something which is not in accordance with the convention on the rights of the child," says Bertrand Bainvel, head of UNICEF Jamaica. "There is a high possibility that it falls under the definition of child abuse."
Bainvel states the Jamaican Ministry of Education inspected TB and ordered children be given mats to lie on. WWASPS president Ken Kay says OP is no longer used. Kids are now given "time-outs," he says.
Twirling her long, straight hair around her small fingers outside a coffee shop in Plantation, Susie who asked her name be changed slowly shakes her head, grinning. The petite blond, now 22 years old, admits she was a boisterous teenager. But she says she never contemplated suicide until arriving at TB.
Susie was sent to TB in November 1997 in part for instigating fights at school. Her father was incarcerated when she was born, and her mother ran off when Susie was a toddler. Her grandparents raised her in Plantation. She was thirteen when her grandparents (who declined to be interviewed) sent her to Jamaica and recalls being, for most of her thirteen-month stay, the youngest person there.
A combination of things, Susie claims, drove her to attempt suicide. She contends the compound was filthy raw sewage ran underfoot and she was made to take cold showers. She claims she was often sent to bed without food because staff "ran out," and recalls spending most of her stay in OP. As punishment for bad behavior, she claims her incoming and outgoing mail was stopped, which left her feeling abandoned. She was not permitted to call home because she never made it past Level One.
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."
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.
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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."