Controversial Elan School closing due to low numbers, negative Web campaign

By Judy Meyer, Sun Journal
Posted March 24, 2011, at 10:25 a.m.

POLAND, Maine — The controversial Elan School for troubled teens will close on April 1.

The private, for-profit boarding school has been forced to close, according to owner and Executive Director Sharon Terry of Casco, due to “declining enrollment and resulting financial difficulties.”

The school, which overlooks Upper Range Pond, was opened in 1970 by a psychiatrist, Dr. Gerald Davidson, and businessman Joseph Ricci.

Terry, who is Ricci’s widow, points to an ongoing Internet campaign launched by an unknown person who goes by the name “Gzasmyhero,” as the cause for much of the school’s financial distress.

The ongoing Web campaign alleges the school engages in punitive tactics, like isolating students for long periods, requiring students to scream at other students as part of the disciplinary program, routinely humiliating and restraining students and limiting teens’ contact with their parents.

“The school has been the target of harsh and false attacks spread over the Internet with the avowed purpose of forcing the school to close,” Terry said in a faxed letter to the Sun Journal. And, despite several investigations conducted by the Maine Department of Education that Terry said have vindicated the school, “the school has, unfortunately, been unable to survive the damage.”

According to “Gzasmyhero,” he (or she) was sent to the Elan School in 1998 at the age of 16.

The Internet poster asserts that, while there may be some truly troubled and perhaps criminal students at the school, they did not make up the majority of the student population. The Web campaign describes the students as “normal kids, many whom may have smoked a joint or two, or who swore at their parents,” and did not or do not deserve the intensity of discipline and programming they were and still are subjected to at the Poland school.

The most visible negative Web campaign was launched about three months ago by “Gzasmyhero,” who argued, “I believe that the internet is our #1 tool for exposing these horrid blind spots (at the school) for what they are.”

A number of other active online sites focus on Elan, including chats on fornits.com and multiple Facebook pages. At ElanAlum.org, former students have more complimentary things to say about their years at Elan; at elanschool.org, derogatory posts discourage parents from enrolling their children.

Elan staff acknowledge that the students who attend the rural school are seriously troubled teens who have often been forced out of a number of other schools, a kind of last resort for desperate parents who want to change their children’s behavior.

According to the school’s website, the staff specializes in treating troubled youths who exhibit behavior problems in school, refuse to obey authority figures, have difficulty accepting responsibility, have poor self-esteem and exhibit oppositional behavior such as temper tantrums and mood swings. The school also specializes in treating academic underachievers and teens with mild-to-moderate learning disabilities.

On March 1, Elan received a renewed academic accreditation and therapeutic certification from the National Independent Private Schools Association that is set to expire in June 2014. The school is also a member in good standing of the Maryland-based National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs.

The school, which charges annual fees of $54,960 for tuition, room, board and special services, accepts troubled teens in grades eight through 12 to participate in a 24- to 30-month program designed to modify behavior. The school offers SAT preparation as part of its college preparatory curriculum, but Web campaign contributors suggest the educational components of the school’s program are a farce and not designed to prepare teens for college.

Despite the intensity of the Web campaign and the decision to close, Terry said she has fond memories and great pride of the work done during her 34 years at the school.

“I will miss very much working with the students and, perhaps most of all, attending graduations, where regularly they gave fresh proof that, put simply, Elan saved lives,” Terry said.

The student-to-teacher ratio at Elan is currently 1:6, and students are evaluated for admission based on academic records and behavior assessments. School staff also interview parents as part of the admissions procedure.

According to an Elan School news release, the school is in the second year of using the “Handle with Care” behavior intervention method created in 1973 for use in a psychiatric intensive care unit at Pennsylvania Hospital. The method employs less restrictive physical restraints and more calming verbal skills than have been routine at the school in past years, and is considered safer management for teens in crisis. Much of the material posted by the “Gzasmyhero” Web campaign pre-dates the change in programming at the school.

Leni Webber of Newtonville, Mass., whose son has been a student at Elan for the past 18 months, posted a comment on the school’s public blog praising the school and its programming.

She described her son as depressed and defiant when he arrived on campus, but “at this point he is an honor roll student (and) has been a part of a state championship x-country track team.” According to Webber, who declined to talk about the school’s closing Wednesday, her son is now looking toward college, something she credits to the “remarkable program at the Elan School.”

Former student Matt Hoffman, who boarded at Elan between 1974 and 1976, had nothing good to say about the program Wednesday, calling the campus a “sadistic, brutal, violent, soul-eating hellhole.”

Hoffman, who now lives in Richmond, Va., and is a self-employed handyman, vividly remembers restraints and routine humiliation, and something he said the staff called “cowboy kick-ass,” a disciplinary process of pushing students into walls in multiple rooms to the point of bruising.

During his time at Elan, Hoffman attempted suicide and stabbed another student. He described the environment as one of abusive, negative peer pressure, not positive peer pressure.

In recent years, Hoffman has been working with other former students to raise public awareness about the school’s programming, hoping to close it down. Now that the school is closing, Hoffman said, “I’m not euphoric, but I feel good. I feel real good.”

One former student and active blogger, Peter Moore of Connecticut, hopes to organize a quick class reunion at the campus before the school closes.

Former Elan students — those who harbor animosity toward the staff and those who don’t — have generated active social networking contacts in recent years to talk about their experiences at the school. Moore hopes to reach out through those networks to organize student visits to Poland.

He acknowledged there is a great difference of opinion among Elan’s graduates regarding the methods used at the school, with some students saying the treatment turned them around and traumatized others for life. “They’re on either extreme,” he said. No middle ground.

In 1975, according to Associated Press reports, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services removed 11 students from Elan, stating the children were being mentally and physically abused. Ricci called the allegations slanderous and threatened to file suit against the Illinois agency. At least three of the children later returned to the school. A Maine Department of Health and Welfare investigation found no evidence the Elan students had been abused.

In the years since, there have been ongoing reports of abuse at the school, including accusations by officials in New York and Massachusetts, plus books and online posts by former students critical of the school’s treatment methods.

Despite the school’s history of complaints and accusations, Terry said she is proud of Elan’s “wonderful and caring staff, which has improved our program over the years (and) has done extraordinary work. I hope they will continue to lend their exceptional gifts to the field of special education.”

Perhaps the school’s most notorious student was Michael C. Skakel, nephew of Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Skakel Kennedy.

Skakel was convicted in 2002 of the murder in 1975 of 15-year-old Martha Moxley. Both lived in an exclusive section of Greenwich, Conn., where she was found beaten to death with a golf club.

While always a suspect in the Moxley murder, Skakel wasn’t arrested until years later when two of his former classmates at the Elan school testified that he had confessed to them while at the school.

Elan classmate Gregory Coleman testified that Skakel bragged, “I’m going to get away with murder. I’m a Kennedy.”

During the trial, Ricci defended the school’s practices as unconventional but effective.

Ricci told The Boston Globe, “These are not your typical public school kids. …Their parents bring them here to succeed when everything else has failed.”

The goal, he said, is to persuade adrift and often-dangerous teens to accept responsibility for their actions. That goal is reached often, Ricci said.

During a reasonable cause hearing in the Skakel case, witnesses testified that Skakel was pummeled by classmates, forced to wear a sign that linked him to Moxley’s murder and humiliated by wearing a 5-foot dunce cap at the 200-student school, according to the Globe.

Skakel had been sent to the school in 1978 after a drunken-driving conviction. He was there for two years.

Skakel is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut and will be eligible for parole in 2013.

Copyright (c) 2011, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/03/24/news/controversial-elan-school-closing-due-to-low-numbers-negative-web-campaign/ printed on April 16, 2014