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Far From Home: Teens Get A (Literal) Wake-Up Call

Steve Appleford

When Avital van Leeuwen was in 10th grade, she was into skateboarding, punk rock, smoking pot and feminism. Her home life was in turmoil in the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, and even though — or maybe because — she’s high IQ, she was having problems at school. She wanted to transfer to a completion program, get her high school diploma and move on. 

That plan got derailed in the wee hours one morning, when she was sitting in bed reading Bitch magazine.

“I just remember my parents coming into my room out of nowhere — both of them, which was weird… I was at my dad’s house. And they said, ‘Avital, we love you very much.’”

She instantly knew: “Something really bad’s about to happen.”

Two strangers, a man and a woman, entered her room. Van Leeuwen, now 24, still has to take a calming breath before she talks about what happened next.

“They didn't really tell me what was happening or where they were taking me. They told me that if I resisted in any way that they would restrain me. And they took me in a car to the airport,” van Leeuwen says. “I remember going through TSA and looking at the TSA agent in the eye and saying, ‘I don't know these people. I’m being kidnapped.’ And he just laughed.”

The TSA agent had probably seen it before. This mode of travel is called “therapeutic transport.” In the 1970s, it was a way to get addicts to treatment centers. It’s now widely used by behavior modification programs.

Ted, who’s now 22 and spent 6 months at a therapeutic boarding school in Utah, says his classmates shared similar stories about how they got there.

“Two big guys would walk in your room in the middle of the night and would zip tie you, throw you in a van, and kidnap you pretty much, and bring you there,” he says. “A high percentage of kids were brought there like that.”

The method was pioneered by a man named Bill Lane — a reformed heroin addict who cleaned up in the 1960s at the cult-like drug rehab program Synanon. Lane left Synanon to assume a leadership role in a chain of private residential treatment centers called CEDU, which were marketed as "emotional growth boarding schools." CEDU is widely recognized as the flagship enterprise of the "troubled teen" industry, and its California facilities faced numerous substantiated allegations of child abuse when they closed in 2005. By that time, Lane had established his own therapeutic transport company, Bill Lane & Associates.

Lane died a few years ago, but he talked about his transport techniques in a 2013 interview with Lon Woodbury, another former CEDU leader, working as an educational consultant.

“We're good people. I mean, we're not there to hurt them, we’re not there to threaten and we're, we're really there to get them safely from home to where they're going,” Lane said.

Parents make a brief appearance, then disappear into another part of the house, Lane said, because their presence could cause the situation to escalate.

And if the student resists?

“You act out at the airport, what we're going to do is rent a car. We're going to drive from New York City, direct straight to Utah without stopping,” Lane said. “So it gives them some food for thought.”

Lane’s company still carries his name, and has been used by Illinois school districts to transport students to therapeutic placements. Melissa Taylor, a past president of Illinois’ statewide association of special education administrators, says the company had a vendor table at the group’s recent conference.

“I had not seen that before, but there definitely must be a market to school districts, if they're serving as a vendor at our conferences,” she says. “It has never occurred to me to need a service like that. And it doesn't seem like a healthy way to work with students who probably have experienced some trauma already. But I don't have any firsthand experience there. It just seems very foreign to me.” 

Jennifer Smith, a partner in a law firm that represents hundreds of school districts across Illinois, says this service can be included in a special education student’s IEP, or Individualized Education Plan.

“The district is required to offer special transportation if that's needed to get a student to a placement,” she says. “And if it's in the IEP, the district is required to fund it. So yes, the district's legally required to fund special transportation that's in an IEP.”

Some school districts are trying a different approach — one that tries to avoid sending students out of state by teaching parents how to modify their behavior at home. James Kling, founder of a firm called Alternative Teaching, provides in-home training plus round-the-clock consultation for a flat fee. Still, he says he’s seen three families use therapeutic transport in the past year.

“They've consistently said it was compassionate, it was effective, and they got the kids out — when they thought, ‘Oh, it's going to be screaming, yelling and fighting and handcuffing kids,’ which none of that occurs,” he says. “But, you know, it is, in my opinion, also traumatic to be removed. They did it therapeutically. But in the end, you have now another trauma.”

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.
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