An Oregon School for Troubled Teens Is Under Scrutiny

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Simone Paddock for TIME

Mount Bachelor Academy, near Prineville, Ore.

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Psychodrama — or New Trauma?
Mount Bachelor's executive director, Bitz, says her school uses widely accepted psychological treatments to help children overcome their problems. "We also use a psychodrama-treatment approach designed to do one or both of two things," said Bitz in her statement, "get a student to embrace qualities of their character (such as beauty or courage) about which they have doubt or assist them in recognizing qualities that are unproductive (such as selfishness or conceit) about which they have little insight."

There are plenty of parents, including TA's, who say they are happy with the services provided to their children. Former students have also praised the school for turning their lives around, in comments on Internet message boards and in letters to regulators.

"All methods of therapy are done in a supportive atmosphere with trained professionals and the intent to raise self-awareness and self-worth," said Bitz.

But other students and parents describe a different experience. The students interviewed by TIME, who attended the school at separate times in recent years, said that humiliation, not support, was the foundation of much of the treatment at Mount Bachelor.

One 18-year-old former student and victim of rape wept while recounting what happened to her during a Lifesteps seminar. Jane, who asked not to be identified by her real name, left the school in March. "They had me dress up as a French maid," she said, describing an outfit that included fishnet stockings and a short skirt. "I had to sit on guys' laps and give them lap dances," while sexually suggestive songs, like "Milkshake" by Kelis, played at high volume.

"They told me I was dirty and I had to put mud on myself for being raped," she said in reference to another Lifesteps session. "They basically blamed me for getting raped."

Bitz dismissed Jane's story and called it "very suspect" in an interview with the Bend Bulletin, which also spoke with Jane. "We know that some current students have made a conscious decision to lie about our school, hoping that it will be closed as a result, and that they would then be sent back home," Bitz told TIME.

Amber Ozier, now 23, attended Mount Bachelor Academy from the summer of 2002 to October 2003 — at about the same time as TA. Her parents enrolled her after she started sneaking out at night and drinking as a teenager. She had also begun smoking marijuana, and her grades were suffering. Several years earlier, Ozier says, her 10-year-old sister had drowned in a lake during Amber's 12th birthday party.

Ozier describes being made to retell the harrowing story of her sister's death repeatedly in groups. In a role-playing session, Ozier says, her closest friend was asked to pretend to be her sister, so Ozier could again relive her death.

According to Ozier and others, in a Lifesteps seminar called Forever Young, students were placed on a mattress and taunted with painful information about their childhood that they had previously revealed, an apparent attempt to trigger regression to infancy. Once more, Ozier was instructed to recall her sister's death against her will. "That was probably the thing that traumatized me the most," she says, describing how she thrashed on the mattress until she vomited. "They prey on people who have already been hurt."

When teens tried to complain in phone calls to parents, the calls were cut off, according to several students interviewed by TIME. Even with good behavior, students say, they were permitted only one monitored, 10-min. phone call every other week.

"We were worried about Amber's life," says Jody Ozier, Amber's mother, regarding her decision to send her daughter to Mount Bachelor. But after hearing Amber's account of her experiences, she says, "I couldn't believe that they did that. I see where it's done her mental harm."

Resurrected Allegations
This is not the first time students have accused Mount Bachelor of abuse, nor is Mount Bachelor the only such program to face allegations of mistreatment. Similar allegations of abuse were documented by the Government Accountability Office for numerous programs in 2007 and 2008, when the agency investigated the troubled-teen industry at the behest of California Congressman George Miller.

In 1998, Mount Bachelor was investigated by the Oregon DHS based on claims by several former employees that students were "subjected to frequent obscenity-laced screaming sessions by staff members; students were deprived of sleep; a group of girls emerged from one group-therapy session with bruising on their arms after they were ordered to clasp their hands in front of them and pound a mattress for an extended period," according to the Bend Bulletin. The Oregon DHS cleared the program following the investigation.

"I am in a state of shock," says Sharon Ferguson, whose complaints about her son's treatment at Mount Bachelor in the 1990s helped spur the earlier investigation. "I can't believe that school is still open and the same things are being said and the same people are running it."

A former student, Melissa Maisa, now 32, married and a mother of two young children in San Diego, had a similar response when informed of the present investigation. Maisa attended Mount Bachelor between 1992 and 1994 under largely the same management that runs the school today, and graduated the school with honors. She was sent there in part because of promiscuous behavior as a teen, which Maisa associates with being a victim of child sexual abuse and date rape. "Mount Bachelor made me feel even more dirty and more shameful than either one of those experiences ever did. I just want to make sure the things I suffered through there never happen again," Maisa says.

She describes a Lifesteps session in which she says she was required to perform an exercise called "the holidays." "I had to stand up in the sluttiest way possible and strut over to every male in the room," including the counselors, Maisa says. She was instructed to sit on the floor before each man, place her left foot on his right knee and say, "This foot is Christmas." She then placed her right foot on his left knee and said, "This foot is New Year's. Do you want to meet me between the holidays?"

Maisa says she performed the exercise more than 250 times. When she failed to show sufficient enthusiasm, Maisa says, she and her peers were punished, each having to repeat their own humiliating skit. When Maisa tried to tell her mother about it on the phone, she says, a staff member terminated the call.

Susan Owren, a part-time driver for Mount Bachelor, has heard similar stories from dozens of students. Owren spends several hours several days a week shuttling the school's students to doctor's appointments in town; during the rides, she says, students open up to her. She says she's seen teens being made to run in the snow without adequate footwear and to move rocks back and forth, apparently as discipline. "Every single kid has told me something horrifying," she says, adding that students who spoke with her independently corroborated one another. In mid-March, Owren went to the authorities, prompting the current state investigation.

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