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Far From Home: Utah Makes Millions On 'Troubled Teens'

Maya-Elena Jackson

Last year, Illinois amended its school code to limit options for districts sending special needs students out of state. Underthis new amendment, districts are no longer be able to send students to states that don’t provide oversight of residential facilities. But some families quickly found a way to work around the new law. 

The amendment might as well have been called the Utah law. Because even though the plain language doesn’t mention Utah, that’s the state it excluded.

Stephanie Jones was general counsel for the State Board of Education in 2017, and she advocated for the change. But today, she acknowledges that families quickly resorted to unilateral placement as a workaround.

That means the family enrolls their child in a private facility, pays the cost upfront, and then seeks reimbursement from the school district.

Why would parents want to send kids someplace all the way on the other side of the country, and there's no oversight?


“That is a fantastic question. I have never understood why — when we've raised issues that the [out-of-state] school doesn't have special education teachers or doesn't have oversight by DCFS — why either parents or hearing officers or parents’ attorneys think that they're appropriate placements,” she says.

One possible reason is that Utah offers a veritable smorgasbord of boarding facilities for “troubled teens.” A 2016 story in the Deseret News reported that the state had more than 100 programs, and served more than 6,000 clients in the previous year. Of those, only 8 percent were from Utah. The report cited an economic study that estimated the teenagers in treatment brought the state at least $270 million, and noted that their families, traveling to visit for parents weekend activities, “don’t necessarily skimp on lodging for themselves.”

Brent Hall, president of Discovery Academy, told Deseret News the industry’s business model was “recession-proof.”

To get some idea of what these schools offer, NPRIllinois talked to several young adults and a former teacher who had spent time in some of the same Utah boarding schools where Illinois districts have sent special education students to live. 


Ted, now 22, is from Indiana. His parents paid for his six-month stay at Hall’s Discovery Academy in Provo. Ted was there as a condition of a plea agreement to get a drug charge dropped in juvenile court, which is why, five years later, he doesn’t want us to use his last name. That charge got him expelled from his college prep boarding school, and he went willingly to Discovery, expecting it to be like a prep school only with horses and a weekly therapy session. 

“When I was packing for there, I was bringing all sorts of things like my lacrosse stick and all my clothes and my cell phone and my you know, my wallet and ID. And as soon as I got there, they take everything away,” he says. “They stripped me completely naked and did a did a search, not a cavity search, but I did do jumping jacks.”

Ted was initially considered a flight risk, which meant he was put on “run watch,” and had to sleep in the common area on a bare floor.

“There was a kid next to me, and he sliced his neck with this razor in the middle of the night, like hundreds of times, and I woke up in a pool of blood,” Ted says. “When they turned the lights on, I'm like, Oh, I'm in some shit. Like, this is not a normal place.”

He was assigned a therapist, and received neurofeedback treatments that he felt were beneficial. But he said the quality of therapists on staff varied — some helpful, others not.

“Some were just kind of nasty to kids. I mean, I don't think that's really the most appropriate way to deal with that,” Ted says. “But it would happen.”

After a month, he was allowed to call his parents, with his therapist sitting near the phone. Ted says he began sobbing so hard that the therapist cut the call short. But before he did, Ted begged his mother to get him out and let him do time in juvenile detention instead.

“I said that multiple times. Very many times," he says. "I still say it today.”  

He soon discovered the key to survival was to play along with the Discovery program, even if it meant lying. 

“I had this whole pamphlet of me promising my therapy, my parents and myself that I would never drink alcohol. And I’m wasn’t even old enough to drink alcohol, you know? But I had to sign this packet and talk about it with my parents in order to graduate the system,” he says.

Erin Woolridge, who’s now 42, worked on staff for three different behavior modification programs in Utah — a wilderness boot camp, Heritage School, and Discovery Academy.


At Heritage, Woolridge was hired to teach Spanish. Even though she didn’t have a teaching certificate (credentials aren’t required in Utah private schools), she had a degree in Latin American Studies from Brigham Young University, and Heritage provided a full week of training, which Woolridge found valuable. 

When her instructor took her to tour the residential facility, Woolridge noticed one student sitting apart from the group, all alone, and asked her why she wasn’t with the other students. The student started to answer, but the trainer intervened.

“She came over and just like tore into her. She's like, ‘She knows better. She knows she's not supposed to talk to anybody right now.’ It was a punishment where they weren't allowed to talk, at all, to anybody,” Woolridge says. “It’s one of those things that I look back on and I really wish that I had understood more about the world and could have given more voice to my feelings.”

At Discovery, she worked in the admissions office, and the residential staff consistently complained about the students. “It would be like working at a hospital, where all the doctors are just super-pissed that the patients are sick,” she says.

She says she eventually resigned her position because she no longer felt good about promoting the program to families.

In the 2017-18 school year, Illinois had nine students at Heritage School and five scattered among three Discovery facilities, according to data obtained from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Credit Courtesy of Avital van Leeuwen
Avital van Leeuwen spent 10 months at Alpine Academy.

  Avital van Leeuwen, who’s now 24, found herself at Alpine Academy, another Utah boarding school, in 2011. She was placed there by the Los Angeles Unified School district; Illinois placed eight students at Alpine in the 2017-18 school year, according to data obtained from ISBE.

Like Ted, she realized there was no escape, and resigned herself to playing along with the system. She says she tried to spend as much time as possible reading psychology textbooks, in order to resist Alpine’s treatment, which she refers to as “psychological warfare.”

“It’s a spiritual kind of oppression,” she says. “You're being abused, emotionally and psychologically every day by people who are telling you that they're helping you, that they love you, they care about you, and that this is the best for you.” 

She says the school put her on medication that came with debilitating withdrawal symptoms when she later tapered off, but helped her tolerate Alpine at the time by making her numb.

“Actually one of the most traumatizing parts of being there: I had to stand up in front of everyone and read this speech that they make all of us do called, ‘Yes, I'm getting better,’ “ she says. “I had to, like, put on this show and the smile like loving the place and having had a great experience when all I was thinking about was how horrible was and how much I couldn’t wait to get out.”

Keagan Autry, who’s from Arizona, was one of van Leeuwen’s classmates. To him, the worst part was the use of isolation as punishment. Not physical isolation, just social isolation.

“If you did something wrong,” he says, “you wouldn’t be allowed to talk to people, either for a day or up to weeks, if you did something that was ‘bad enough.’ ” 

The worst thing you could do was kiss a girl, and odds are, you’d get caught.

“There were cameras in the home, you had no privacy. I didn’t even feel safe in my own thoughts,” Autry says. “It felt like I wasn’t even allowed to think badly of Alpine. And I think that’s partially why I started loving Alpine, in a way.”

For a couple of years after graduation, he felt intensely loyal to the school. But troubling memories kept bubbling up in his mind.

“It took a lot of time for it to sink in, just the depths of how wrong a lot of the things that happened there were,” he says.

Looking back, Keagan Autry — and that’s now legally his name — realizes he was struggling with gender dysphoria. Alpine is an all-girls school, and since Autry was assigned female at birth, he was expected to behave like a girl.

In an email, Alpine director Christian Egan said school policies have evolved since then, shifting to honor masculine and non-binary gender pronouns around 2015-16.


“Alpine Academy accepts and affirms our students in their preferred gender identity and presentation,” Egan wrote. “Although our history and foundation is that of an ‘all girls school,’ over the past several years we have admitted students who present with a male or gender-neutral identity, and have respected and honored their preferences by referring to them by the desired name and pronouns (he/him or they/them) and allowing them to dress as befits their gender identity. Some students have made a transition from a female to male identity, presentation, name, and pronouns during their time with us. Alpine Academy does not participate in nor condone the practice of ‘conversion therapy.’ Students are not punished for nor discouraged from discussing, exploring, and experimenting with gender identities different from their birth-assigned identity or the one initially presented at Alpine Academy.”

Egan said Alpine never had a general policy forbidding masculine attire, but that the provision might have been part of an individual student’s treatment. 

Illinois banned conversion therapy in 2015, but the law doesn’t cover Illinois students residing out-of-state. 

Utah has recently instituted new oversight provisions, but Jennifer Smith, a partner in an Illinois law firm that represents hundreds of school districts, says she has no way to evaluate whether the new laws are effective.  

“These places are so far away, there's no reasonable way to monitor from Illinois, whether they're safe or unsafe,” she says, “let alone effective for students with disabilities.” 

One of the Utah schools where Illinois placed students during the 2017-18 school year — Red Rock Canyon School closed this year after a riot and allegations of abuse.

After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.