From Nadya Labi’s “Want Your Kid to Disappear?” (Legal Affairs: July/August 2004):
RICK STRAWN IS AN EX-COP WHO STARTED HIS COMPANY in 1988 to help police officers find off-duty work guarding construction sites. Ten years later, he was asked by a member of his United Methodist church to transport the churchgoer’s son to Tranquility Bay in Jamaica. The school is run by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs, a company headquartered in Utah that owns eight schools in the United States and abroad, including Louis, Jr.’s destination. …
Three years ago, Strawn escorted Valerie Ann Heron, a 17-year-old from Montgomery, Ala., to Tranquility Bay. The school is the most hardcore in the WWASP system, the one to which students are sent when they repeatedly cause trouble at other schools. …
The world according to Strawn is based on choices and consequences. The world according to WWASP is designed to reinforce the same principle. Students enter Casa by the Sea at the first of six levels. To advance, they have to earn points through good behavior and schoolwork. Until they reach level three, which takes an average of three months, they can communicate with the outside world only through letters to their parents, which the school monitors. After that, they can talk on the phone to their parents but no one else.
Casa costs nearly $30,000 for a year – as much as a year’s tuition at Harvard – but offers no traditional academic instruction. Instead the schoolwork is self-paced; the students sit at tables with a workbook and take a test on a section when they decide they’re ready. They can retake the same test as many times as necessary to achieve an 80 percent passing grade. According to the Casa parent handbook, the school does not ensure that “the student will even receive any credits” or that the teachers who monitor the study sessions will have U.S. credentials. The school does not track how many of its students go on to high school or college. “You’re not going to have a teacher riding your back,” Dalton told Louis. “It’s all independent study. I just read the module, and did the test. I finished class in a week. That’s how easy it is.”
Students spend more time studying themselves than any other subject. They write daily reflections in response to self-help tapes and videos such as Tony Robbins’s Personal Power, You Can Choose, and Price Tag of Sex. They answer questions like “What feelings/emotions did I experience today and how did I choose to respond?”
Students also attend, and eventually staff, self-help seminars. The entry-level seminar, called Discovery, encourages participants to “learn to interrupt unconscious mental and emotional cycles which tend to sabotage results.” Kelly Lauritsen participated in Discovery at Casa in 2000 and said she was encouraged to hit the walls with rolled towels to release her anger. The price of tuition includes versions of these seminars for parents. Like Oprah on speed, sessions run nonstop from morning until midnight. Many parents and kids say they benefit from the self-analysis. “I didn’t realize that I had so much anger inside,” the 14-year-old girl whom Strawn transported in November wrote to her mother. …
Strawn told Louis that the hardest thing about Casa would be abiding by the school’s intricate system of discipline. “It’s not the big rules that get you. It’s all the little rules,” Strawn said. Casa docks students, according to its handbook, for telling “war stories” about inappropriate experiences, for being unkind to each other, and for making “negative statements about the School, the staff, the country, or other students.”
“There’s a whole page of rules,” said Shannon Eierman, who attended Casa last year. “That page is divided into sections of categories, into different codes, and a million subcategories. You could be there forever and the next day and learn a new rule.”
Students at Casa who commit “Category 5 infractions” can be punished with an “intervention,” for example, which is defined as being left alone in a room. Students say that the punishment can last for weeks, though Casa insists that the maximum penalty is three days. “I had to sit with crossed legs in a closet for three days,” said Kaori Gutierrez, who left Casa in 2001. Interventions may be used to punish out-of-control behavior, drug use, and escape attempts. But they’re also the way the school handles “self-inflicted injuries,” which can range from cracked knuckles to self-mutilation with pens or paper clips to an attempted suicide.
At the root of this long list of punishable violations is “manipulation,” which includes lying or exaggerating. Strawn repeatedly uses the word to dismiss a kid’s behavior – it’s the way he said Valerie Heron acted the day before her suicide. In the WWASP universe that he inhabits, manipulation is a term of art that refers to just about anything a teen does or says that the staff doesn’t like.