Seclusion at therapeutic boarding schools unlocks hope for troubled kids

By DAVID TARRANT / The Dallas Morning News

Michelle had become angry and moody.

The 17-year-old, the middle of three children, had been a happy child in grade school, making good grades and having lots of friends.

But in junior high school, her troubles began. She attracted boys; her popularity with girls plummeted and so did her grades.

Then the lies began. She’d lie about her whereabouts, lie about who she was with, says her mother, a Dallas resident, who requested anonymity to protect her daughter’s identity. (Michelle is not her daughter’s first name.)

Michelle’s parents tried to do the right thing. They grounded their daughter. “Everything she did had consequences,” her mother says.

“She’d say, ‘You don’t trust me,’ ” her mother says. “And we’d say, ‘I’m sorry. We love you, but we can’t trust you.’ “

Michelle skipped school with her best friend and two boys. Although she came back that evening, she immediately ran away that night.

That’s when Michelle’s parents decided she needed a more structured environment.

Parents, such as Michelle’s, are increasingly turning to a growing number of last-resort schools, called therapeutic boarding schools.

Such places offer more than just a private school education. As their name implies, therapeutic boarding schools also are intensive treatment centers, which focus on teenagers with emotional and learning problems.

“The whole field is growing in leaps and bounds,” says Rhea Wolfram, a certified educational consultant in Dallas. “You’re making an investment in the emotional life of a child.”

It’s an expensive investment. Therapeutic boarding schools range from $4,500 to $9,000 – a month.

That price typically includes a customized plan with intensive individual and group therapy. The academic program usually includes workshops on personal responsibility, anger management and other life skills. Most therapeutic boarding schools offer 9- to 18-month programs and year-round admissions.

The results can pay long-term dividends, Ms. Wolfram says. “You’re letting a child find out who he is. Kids learn to become invested in themselves and their self-worth.”

Therapeutic boarding schools had been a rare option since the late ’60s. In 1999, the shootings at Columbine High School, the deadliest school crime in U.S. history, put a spotlight on the pitfalls of adolescence.

Ten years ago, there were only about 40 private schools nationwide aimed at troubled teens. The year after Columbine, the number soared to 250. Today it’s closer to 500.

“We’ve seen an incredibly explosive growth,” says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the national Independent Education Consultants Association, in suburban Washington, D.C. Educational consultants are independent advisers, who are hired by parents to help them find the right match of schools or programs for their children’s needs and talents.
An elusive solution

Still, the schools are not top of mind with many public-school guidance counselors or therapists in private practice. Parents often don’t learn about them until their child needs immediate help.

Michelle’s mother says her daughter’s safety was the deciding factor. “You’re definitely deciding you want to save your kid,” says the mother, who also requested that she not be identified.

A second factor was concern about her other children. “Our household was a screaming, yelling nightmare. The other kids were being affected.”

A friend of her husband, who had a daughter in a therapeutic boarding school, recommended an educational consultant, who helped the parents choose a school in the Southeast.

“At least we knew she was in a safe place, and the school – I think it was wonderful,” she says.

Already shaken by their child’s poor choices, parents face the reality that they might make a poor choice as they try to navigate the options for these types of schools.

“Unfortunately, parents that start looking into this are often desperate,” says Mr. Sklarow, the spokesman for the educational consultants’ association. “They feel, ‘If I don’t get this done in a week, I may lose my kid from drugs or violence or whatever,’ ” he said.

“There are so many different models for doing this that getting the child into the one that’s right for them is the most important part of this.”

One reason there are so many types of schools is because there are so many types of troubled teenagers: from a boy who turns to beer and pot to block his discovery of Dad having an affair, to a girl who engages in food-binging and truancy to deal with a sexual assault by a classmate.

Many of these teens have histories of learning disorders, low self-esteem and academic underachievement that contribute to their self-destructive behavior.

They usually have run the gamut of school counselors, and perhaps individual or family therapy. They may have been in court-ordered drug and alcohol-recovery programs.

“These kids are not oddballs and freaks,” says David L. Marcus, author of a new book: What It Takes to Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble and How Four of Them Got Out (Houghton Mifflin, $25).

“Every kid sits in classes with someone who is struggling with depression or an eating disorder. Every high school, whether in a city or a town, has kids who are struggling emotionally.”
How the schools work

Therapeutic schools allow these students to move out of their normal environment, which has become problematic, and into one that offers, first and foremost, the three S’s: safety, stability and structure.

There is often a wilderness component, where students learn what’s expected of them, and how their actions affect the group and not just themselves.

Although the days are highly structured, there are usually opportunities to explore spiritual development, as well as sports, fine arts and other social activities.

Each school has a different specialty or emphasis, different levels of freedom, of counseling options.

Some are wilderness programs; others are based on reward-and-punishment models or on the 12-step program.

The goal is to replace the negative influences of a teenager’s old peer group with what therapists describe as a “positive peer culture.”

“It’s more than just teaching woodmanship,” says Mark Hobbins, senior vice president of Aspen Education Group, which operates 30 programs for troubled, underachieving youth in 11 states, including two in Texas.

“It gets them in touch with their self-worth and potential,” Mr. Hobbins says. “Once you have that sense of value of yourself, you want it again.”

As for Michelle, she spent 12 months at the boarding school and is now living back home. She was accepted at three colleges but hasn’t decided where to go yet.

Her anger has greatly decreased, her mother says.

“She’s not out of the woods yet, and she’s going to have to continue working on her decision-making skills,” she says.

The entire family, including the other two children, have been participating in counseling since Michelle came home. Part of that is learning to accept her for who she is.

“We’re seeing some good things and some things we wish would change,” Michelle’s mother says. “But it’s a whole lot better than it was.”

Michelle is more appreciative of her parents’ values, including education. “The importance of it went way up. Her family values increased 500 percent,” her mother says. “Even though she said she hated her home, she really learned to appreciate her family.”