Disappointment expressed about closure of Elan School

Posted March 30, 2011, at 9:24 p.m.
Last modified March 31, 2011, at 8:55 a.m.

Mitchell and Zach Gordon of Toronto used to be reckless, troubled youths. Mitchell was headed for jail and Zach was struggling in school.

Their parents, Ken and Sandy Gordon, enrolled Mitchell at the Elan School in 2009 on the recommendation of a friend, and enrolled Zach at the Poland campus last year.

Zach said he didn’t really want to go to Elan, “but I didn’t want to get kicked out of my family.” So he went.

These brothers now are polite high achievers who are looking forward to college.

They say their respective experiences at Elan turned their lives around and they know the Elan School of today is not the school of the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s.

It is not, they say, the school that people are reading about online.

The Gordon brothers left Elan on Saturday, days after owner Sharon Terry of Casco announced the closure because of declining enrollment and financial difficulties brought about by what she called a false Internet campaign that had “the avowed purpose of forcing the school to close.”

Former students and staffers responsible for that campaign immediately celebrated the school’s closure, but many of the school’s students and more recent graduates say the closure is tragic.

Kevin Zeunert, a geologist who lives in Pennsylvania, attended Elan between 1993 and 1995. “Elan seems a long time ago sometimes and, at times, it seems like it was just yesterday,” he wrote in an email to the Sun Journal.

Elan was, Zeunert said, “a place to grow up.”

“It definitely wasn’t evil but, at the same time, its methods were very real and sometimes scary,” he said, but in the end, “I know that it helped me.”

Sumner Queen, a student at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., graduated from Elan on Jan. 14.

In trouble with the law when he was 17 years old, he said he was a troublemaker. Elan straightened him out, Queen said, changing him into a serious student and athlete.

“You can’t compare a school that opened 40 years ago and what’s happening now,” he said, praising the current staff for its collective commitment to students. The school is “there to rebuild things,” he said, and it works.

Recent graduates in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, Tennessee and California who called the Sun Journal to talk about their experiences echoed Queen’s sentiments that the school’s structure was rigid, but fair and helpful.

The Gordon brothers have heard all the stories about the Elan of the past, but say that today the private for-profit therapeutic school is a safe place where teens are counseled by their peers to become productive citizens.

“They do the best they can to redirect you,” Zach Gordon said. “Everyone holds each other accountable. That’s the beauty of it.”

Zach, now 17 years old, has been a student at Elan for the past nine months. His 15-year-old brother, Mitchell, has been there for two years.

Both boys are sad the school is closing and angry that former students have used the Internet to spread decades-old stories about long-ago therapeutic practices. The brothers say the stories are false, unfair and not representative of the school’s current practices.

“No one really laid a hand on me when I was at Elan,” Zach said, or swore at him, but instead used verbal reprimands and group meetings to control behavior.

Mitchell, who went to Elan instead of a Canadian juvenile detention center, said that, “when I first got there, it was really hard adjusting because it’s a really structured environment. But, after a while I started succeeding,” he said, because of that structure.

The brothers are among dozens of recent and current students and current staff members who say Elan’s closure is heartbreaking and that the online campaign to shut down the school is an unfair attack against responsible students and committed staff.

David Waly, a 21-year-old student in the criminal justice program at Southern Maine Community College, remembers the Gordon brothers and takes satisfaction in being one of the older students there who helped both boys mature.

Waly’s parents died when he was 10 years old, and “naturally,” he said, he had a lot of problems. It wasn’t long before he was drinking heavily, self-medicating over the loss of his parents, staying out late and going to parties in Manhattan where he lived.

His older brother was his legal guardian, Waly said, and enrolled him at Elan when Waly become unmanageable.

Waly, who was 13 years old at the time, was forcibly transported to Maine and remembers being very unhappy about that. “At first,” he said, “I was spiteful. I was very angry being there because my life for the past 2½  years was drinking every day, going to parties and doing what I wanted.”

He tried running away from Elan several times, but soon “realized I couldn’t keep running from life, and the path I kept going down was not going to get me anywhere. I would be dead soon.”

At Elan, Waly said, he learned to accept and deal with the fact that “life sucks. Adversity sucks, but you’ve got to get through it and that’s what makes you stronger.”

He hopes to take those lessons to the streets as a police officer working in Maine drug enforcement, helping kids who may be struggling through some of the problems he faced as a juvenile. He wants to be able to help others as he was helped at Elan.

“It wasn’t easy being at Elan,” Waly said, “being taken out of your life and put somewhere else. But, we learned to make the best of what we had there.” The peer-pressure program created a kind of family support system among students, he said, that was very effective in modifying bad behavior.

Despite these positive stories, those who campaigned for the school’s closure are glad the facility is closing.

The tales of treatment at the school during the 1970s were well-documented during the 2002 murder trial of former student Michael Skakel, and the practices of isolating students, screaming sessions called “general meetings” and physically rough treatment have been written about by dozens of former students, including disturbing details of Wayne Kernochan’s time at the school between 1978 and 1980 detailed in his e-book, “A Life Gone Awry: My Story of the Elan School.”

At the same time the Skakel testimony drew attention to Elan practices, the Maine Department of Education issued its “Basic School Approval Report Pertaining to the Elan School,” based on visits to the school in June and July 2002, commending the school community for its commitment to education, athletics and therapy.

The DOE found “no indication that students enrolled at Elan School are placed at risk for their safety or well-being,” but did mandate five requirements and made nine recommendations for improvements at the school, including prohibiting the use of wrist and ankle restraints except in extreme situations, and mandatory training for anyone supervising the use of therapeutic restraints. The DOE also required proof that Elan was no longer using the so-called “ring,” forcing older, bigger students to box with younger, smaller students as a form of discipline.

It was after this report was filed, and Elan complied with its requirements, that student views about their school experience shifted in a more positive direction.

Kernochan is willing to accept that the school atmosphere changed a decade ago, but he said that doesn’t change his experience and the experience of so many others who attended the school before 2002.

Kernochan, a writer who is disabled and living in New York City, said Wednesday that the group campaigning to close Elan for the past nine years will now work to expose similar therapeutic schools, and organize against those schools, too. “Our plan is to close them all down,” he said.

Another former student, Sharon McCarthy of Illinois, a distant Skakel cousin, is determined to hold Terry and Elan staff members accountable for her experience when she was there in 1984, including her rape while on a school outing, she said.

Kernochan, McCarthy, Mark Babitz of Chicago and Matt Hoffman of Virginia are the core group behind the anti-Elan Internet campaign, and McCarthy runs the three-year-old Elan Survivors Group. She estimated that there are about 400 members of the support group, with membership growing since the closure was announced as memories surfaced.

McCarthy said she is in the process of seeking legal representation for the group, hoping to hold the school’s ownership and administration responsible for the trauma students say they suffered there.

They’re not interested in a financial settlement, she said, just validation that what they experienced was real and it was wrong. “We need some respect,” she said.

Kernochan said he has mixed emotions about the school’s closure because, although he’s certain about his own experience, “I have people saying it saved their lives.”

He thinks these lives “were saved despite Elan,” but he does wonder whether the school’s recent years were kinder to students than when he was a student there.

Kinder and better, insists Zach Gordon.

Gordon will enroll as a student at the Hyde School in Bath starting Monday, and intends to attend his senior year of high school there before going to college.

He worries that, without Elan, he’ll struggle to maintain structure and manage his time, but he thinks he has developed the skills he needs to take care of himself.

Mitchell Gordon shares some of his brother’s worry.

Mitchell estimated he had finished about three-fourths of the Elan program and will now attend a less structured school, but he hopes to keep himself busy with extracurricular activities, including volunteer work and work to keep himself on track to attend college. “I want to go into business or finance, maybe be a doctor or lawyer,” Mitchell said.

He is absolutely certain of one thing: “I wouldn’t be here without Elan.”

From Ken Gordon’s perspective as a parent, he said, “It’s just so tragic. Many of the staff have been at the school for decades. I view them as people who have really sacrificed and committed their lives to helping kids.”

And, now, he said, the school is closing. “They’re out of a job and they’re leaving an institution that, as far as the world knows, has a tainted reputation.”

The Sun Journal has made numerous requests to speak with Terry, without success, but seven members of the Elan faculty sent a letter to the newspaper late Tuesday expressing dismay over the closure.

Spanish-finance teacher Skip Crosby sent the letter on behalf of the faculty, writing that “to a person, the dedicated faculty members that represent decades of employment at the school have never experienced, seen, or heard of any of the vile comments hyped by Elan’s anonymous internet detractors whose experience is selective remembrance of events during a very troubled time in their lives.”

The letter acknowledged that some students could have had negative experiences over the 40-year history of the school because it specializes in treating “thousands of youth in all stages of abandonment and hateful rebellion.”

“We must highlight the fact that the overwhelming majority finished Elan’s program of rehabilitation with renewed hope and were by all measures of their future lives, ‘success stories,’” according to the faculty’s letter.

Years ago, Ken and Sandy Gordon wondered what would become of their boys, but Ken Gordon said, “We now are comfortable that both boys are going to achieve great things well beyond what we expected when they went to Elan.”

Gordon believes the school prepared Mitchell and Zach for success and he was sad, he said, “not only for our kids, but for the other kids who are there” and won’t be able to graduate from Elan.

The Elan School is set to close Friday, but much of the student body has already left. Only a dozen students were still there Tuesday, with most expected to be gone Thursday.

To see more of the Sun Journal, visit sunjournal.com.

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