— By Maia Szalavitz | Wed November 4, 2009 11:46 AM PST
Are lap dances an effective therapy for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or drug addiction? It doesn't seem like a question that should require a serious answer—but a state investigation of Oregon's Mount Bachelor Academy (MBA) has substantiated allegations made by students and staff that such "therapy" was part of the school's "emotional growth" curriculum and forced an emergency shutdown of the campus.
Just this June, the Supreme Court had decided in favor of a couple who sued for payment of MBA's tuition to treat their son's ADHD and marijuana problem. The Court determined [pdf] that parents of disabled children do have the right to seek such taxpayer support from a school district, even if they haven't tried public special education first.
While the decision didn't specify whether MBA itself was appropriate, some districts across the country are already reimbursing parents for its current $76,000 annual tuition, despite decades of allegations of similarly inappropriate and unproven practices. [Just one example is here [pdf]
These abusive practices aren't isolated. MBA is part of the largest chain of "troubled teen" programs in the industry, Aspen Education, serving hundreds of kids. Right now, another Aspen program in Oregon—best known for being featured in the reality TV series "Brat Camp"—is under criminal investigation.
That investigation is related to the August death of a 16-year-old boy, which the sheriff's deputy in charge of the case has called a "homicide." As in several earlier deaths in such programs, the boy was made to hike in intense heat and is thought to have died of heat stroke after staff ignored his complaints. The state made Aspen shutter the program, known as Sagewalk, in September. Websites with urls like bratcamps.com still advertise it.
But look what's going on, even when these programs don't kill kids. On Monday, Oregon's Department of Human Services released a scathing report on Mount Bachelor, saying that its "emotional growth" curriculum is "harmful and damaging" and its "methods of emotional, behavioral and mental health intervention and daily interaction with students perpetuate an environment that poses a pervasive immediate threat which places all children at risk of harm."
The state ordered the school to shut down immediately and demanded numerous disciplinary, educational and staffing changes within 90 days or its license would be revoked.
The report confirmed eight allegations of abuse involving five students, but said that those students were actually "exemplars" whose experience is "substantially consistent with the experience of all children enrolled in the program." It specifically held Executive Director Sharon Bitz to account, saying that she "either knew of the abusive practices of the agency or should have known what was happening under her authority."
Incredibly, despite that $6,400 monthly tuition and advertising claims that MBA is appropriate for teens with conditions ranging from depression, ADHD and addiction to bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, the investigation found that "MBA has only one staff member who is an Oregon licensed mental health professional, however, that staff member reported that he does not meet with every student."