A Protest that is Personal to Me

image of three women holding protest signs
“PCS Abused Me” “Google this: Boot Camp Abuse” “Regulate RTCs”

Yesterday in Toronto, there was a protest during the Independent Educational Consultant Association (IECA) Conference.  The goal was to raise awareness about the current unregulated practices that these programs are allowed in many parts of the U.S.  These schools and boot camps have very few restrictions about how they’re allowed to exist- many of them are essentially self-certified and allowed to practice therapy in any manner they choose. This includes strict behavior modification treatments, levels of isolation that would be illegal if these kids were in the state corrective systems, and a complete lack of licensed schooling.  In the United States and Canada, we’ve all seen the newspaper stories: Boot Camp Deaths like Omega Leach. It got so bad that last year, a bill  (HR 911) was introduced into the House of Representatives called “End Institutionalized Child Abuse.”   The U.S. Government Accountability Office produced a 62 page report on selected cases of death and abuse at public and private Residential Treatment Centers (RTCs). The bill passed the House but has not been acted on by the Senate.

The picture is thanks to an awesome friend of mine, Lee
G. I met Lee in 2002, when we both attended the same Residential
Treatment Center.  By the time I arrived at Provo, I needed help. After a
mid-semester move in 7th grade from London, England to a suburb in
Dallas, TX, I failed to thrive in school. I didn’t have a lot of
friends, I was bullied, and the school work was so below my level I
became discouraged. I was picked on by a vice principle for my clothing
choices and hair color, despite never actually breaking the school dress
code. I had an undiagnosed learning disorder. I graduated middle school
a with a perfect behavior record, and took summer school classes to
clear away some easy high school electives so I could play a sport
(basketball), stay in orchestra (viola) and take a language (pre-AP
Spanish). I was on the Talented-And-Gifted track for one of the best
high schools in the nation, and sometimes considered the best when
Private, Charter and Magnet schools were removed from that list.

Emotionally, I wasn’t doing so hot.  While I still had exemplary
behavior reports in class, my grades had gone from As to Cs, and an F in
geometry pre-AP. I was still depressed I was living in car-dependent
Texas rather than the metropolitan world of London which had given me so
much walking independence. My relationship with my parents was pretty
terrible.  I was And so they decided that I needed a more therapeutic
environment.  So we looked at different programs. I wanted to get out of
the house- boarding school, especially if it were some place beautiful,
sounded like a great way for me to express my independence and work out
some of my issues.   And we saw this great video by a residential
treatment program, Provo Canyon School. They had pictures of guys and
girls studying together outdoors, a great section on recreational and
equine therapy, field trips to Moab and Yosemite. There was talk of
dances and proms.  We got a press release about the kids picking apples
on campus and donating it to a local food bank. They promised I could
work hard academically and get caught up or even ahead.

But that’s not what I experienced there.  In the 8 months I spent
indoors, I was subject to emotional and verbal abuse. I was forced to
watch the physical, sexual, emotional and verbal abuse of others, and
encouraged to participate in that dehumanization if I wanted to go home.
 I spent a month without a phone call to anybody. I was not allowed to
watch news, radio, read newspapers, and there was no internet access.
The boy’s campus was miles away- in a separate city. We never had
classes with them. We were entirely cut off from the outside world and
locked inside for months at a time. We also became our numbers, the way
the school identified us.

For me, The worst part was waking up in the middle of the night to
hear a girl screaming, to hear her dragged to the freezing cement rooms
that were called Isolation until they stopped, when you knew they’d been
stabbed in the butt with a needle, drugged into a stupor for the next
few days. They’d finally emerge pale, dizzy, with deep black circles
under their eyes without the right to have a bed or their own clothes. I
heard these terrible stories concerning male staff who had unrestrained
access to their “emotionally disturbed” youth.  Some girls bragged
about the cute staff member they managed to have relations with. It
meant safety.  The queer among us were constantly harassed and told they
were in some way deficient.

I’m terrified of telling this story because I’m afraid people will
judge me as “emotionally disturbed” or as somehow damaged. I am not
those things, but I know those words can be used against me to
invalidate my experiences.  I am also terrified that people will judge
my parents for sending me here. The fact is, my parents were lied to,
and were promised that I would be helped when they felt they couldn’t
help me.  I am a polite, brilliant, contributing member of society. I
graduated high school in two years and was still valedictorian. I lived
independently as a minor abroad. I graduated college, and was a member
the national honor society in my field (classics).  I have healthy,
successful relationships. I volunteer my time and work for those who are
less fortunate than I.  I am a stronger person for what I have been
through. But that does not excuse the abuse I have encountered or
witnessed. I have seen others break, and I refuse to be a part of that.
 And the youth that are at that school now have no voice currently. But I
still have nightmares of those screams. I still am triggered every time
I see my number. I still sleep with my door locked in case someone
tries to drag me out of my bed in my sleep, as I have seen and I have
heard. And it’s hard to sleep at night if I’m not protecting someone
else from that reality.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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