Ex-Employees, Parents Say Teens Mistreated at Private Academy

From the Columbian, March 19, 1998

Four ex-employees and two parents allege that high-risk students of a private academy were deprived of sleep, subjected to obscenity-laced tirades and forced to work in near-freezing temperatures overnight.

Officials of the Mount Bachelor Academy, which touts its highly structured environment for troubled teen-agers, deny the accusations.

But the ex-employees and parents say students were physically and emotionally mistreated at the school 27 miles east of Prineville, where tuition is $ 4,300 a month.

There was definitely abuse going on, parent Sharon Ferguson of San Diego told the Bend Bulletin.

I think my son was in some ways damaged by what went on there.

The allegations come on the heels of similar incidents reported at the academys sister school in Plainfield, Mass.

Academy Executive Director Tim Brace says the schools are easy targets for criticism because they use unconventional methods to reach students, many of whom have been expelled from other schools because of emotional, behavioral and substance-abuse problems.

However, academy officials acknowledge a state investigation is under way, possibly prompted by formal complaints filed by a former teacher.

Joseph Sheppherd, who says he was fired from a teaching job at the school last November after speaking out about the abuse, said students are routinely screamed at by employees and subjected to sleep deprivation so extensive it causes hallucination.

At one group therapy session, he said a group of girls emerged with bruises on their arms after they were ordered to clasp their hands in front of them and pound a mattress for an extended period.

Another group of girls on a backwoods outing were reportedly rousted from their sleeping bags at midnight and forced to remove rocks from a dirt road for two hours on a cold October night. Several of the girls were reportedly ill.

I felt weak and exhausted from my sickness, a female student wrote in a letter dated Oct. 17, 1997.

I was cold to the point my teeth were chattering out of control and my toes and fingers stung and hurt to move.

The group reportedly walked about a mile to their work site, followed in a truck by the three staff members who drank hot apple cider and had the heater on.

We worked out of fear, the girl wrote.

Brace acknowledged the midnight incident, calling it poor judgment by a handful of staff members.

He dismissed the other allegations as the grumblings of one unhappy fired employee: I dont even acknowledge that we yell, he said.

But three other former employees confirmed the Sheppherds accounts, saying they also had concerns about academics and under-staffing.

I think the philosophy they use is fighting fire with fire, said Jen Plantz, who was fired from her teaching job in December after six months.

The kids are already so damaged it only adds to the crap they carry around every day.

The academy maintains a secretive atmosphere, and new employees are required to enter confidentiality agreements barring them from discussing the schools treatment program.

Students are also discouraged from discussing what goes on in closed-door group sessions, even with their parents.

Lucyann Carlton of Newport Beach, Calif. said she pulled her son out of the academy after growing dissatisfied with the learning environment and her inability to communicate with him.

We had serious concerns about the school, she said.