Utah boarding school group known for ‘tough love’ draws lawsuits
Published: July 23, 2013 09:51PM
Updated: July 23, 2013 09:50PM

After Alexander Chomakhidze and his family moved to the United States from Greece a few years ago, he became so despondent he started skipping school and even tried to kill himself. Worried, his parents sent him to Horizon Academy, a Utah boarding school that promised therapy.

But Chomakhidze, now 18, said that instead of getting help he was roughed up and taunted by staff members, who held him down and cut off his long hair when he arrived. Later, after he slit his wrists, he said he was disciplined but received no mental health counseling.

“They didn’t help,” said Chomakhidze, who will be a college freshman this fall. “No one talked to me about it. They just punished me.”

During the past 15 years, a network of Utah-based “tough love” boarding schools for troubled youths has closed nearly two dozen programs amid claims of child abuse, which the schools have denied. But Horizon Academy and at least half a dozen other schools with business or family ties to those who ran the network are still operating, and others with those ties are newly opened. And once again, former students, parents and former staff members say that children at some of the schools, Chomakhidze among them, have been routinely mistreated.

School officials have denied Chomakhidze’s claims. But interviews and email exchanges with more than 30 former students, parents, current and former staff members, and owners of the schools reveal a rigid system of discipline at the facilities, which are typically locked compounds, often in remote areas. Everyday activities like speaking, using the bathroom, walking freely between rooms, taking showers and talking to parents are limited by the staff.

Robert B. Lichfield, the founder of the network, the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, said in an emailed statement that he no longer owns any of the schools and that he was unaware of children being harmed. He said that for more than a decade he has supplied only business and educational services to the programs.

“Allegations against schools I did not own or manage, I can’t answer,” he wrote in an email. “I wasn’t there, I didn’t abuse or mistreat students, nor did I encourage or direct someone else to do so. I provided business services that were non-supervision, care, or treatment services to schools that were independently owned and operated.”

Behavior modification programs for troubled teenagers have thrived as state and federal laws allow private boarding schools far greater leeway in how they treat children than is permitted in public school systems, which generally prohibit physical punishment, the isolation of children and other severe discipline methods.

In fact, there are no federal laws governing schools like those built on the World Wide model. A 2011 congressional bill that would have banned physical abuse and the withholding of food at such schools died in committee after it was opposed by lawmakers reluctant to impose new federal standards on a matter often regulated by states.

Instead, states oversee the facilities variously as camps, boarding schools or residential treatment facilities, and state regulators often hesitate to step in because the programs exist in an ill-defined area of the law. For example, private boarding schools are not regularly inspected and are not required to be licensed or accredited, according to the federal Department of Education.

In a case that is not directly related to World Wide, children at a number of privately operated facilities in Florida recently said they had been abused in programs with little governmental control because the schools are regulated as religious institutions.

‘Manipulative’ students

Lichfield said that accusations of mistreatment by troubled adolescents are common in the business. “All schools working with disturbed teens have a few students who are angry and manipulative, with long histories of lying and dishonesty, who will make allegations,” he wrote. “Find one school for me that does not. The schools we provided services for had such volume that even a very small percentage of students who make such allegations start to add up, but every school has about the same percentage of students who didn’t like being there and are willing to make such allegations.”

Lichfield’s lawyer, J. Ralph Atkin, said that parents of the nearly 20,000 children who have attended World Wide schools during the past 20 years had a satisfaction rate of 96 percent, and that the schools’ employees had been required by law to report signs of mistreatment. Atkin himself owned a World Wide program in the Czech Republic during the 1990s. It was investigated by Czech authorities after accusations of child abuse and was later closed; World Wide said no children had been mistreated there.

A lawsuit on behalf of more than 350 former students and their parents in a Utah state district court claims that World Wide’s programs provide little education or mental health help, and that staff members engage in outright assault. “In many instances,” the suit says, “the abuse could be accurately described as torture of children.”

In May, a lawsuit against a World Wide-related company was resolved for $3 million without the company admitting liability - nine years after a 16-year-old girl hanged herself in a bathroom stall at a facility in Montana called Spring Creek Lodge Academy, which has since closed. Before her suicide, the girl had been punished by being forced to carry a bucket of rocks, according to depositions by the school’s owners and staff.

Owners of the facilities that are currently open say their programs have no connection to World Wide, and turned down requests to visit. But in interviews, former students, parents and staff members - many of them, like Chomakhidze, not part of a lawsuit against World Wide - described them as spartan places.

Daily life is highly structured, with limited free time. Students, who are required to wear uniforms, generally perform schoolwork at their own pace for about five hours a day, though many students and parents say the curriculum is far less rigorous than that of local public schools. While some of the programs have gyms, usually only those who have earned enough points for good behavior can use them. Former students say those points can be rescinded quickly after months of hard work.

Violating rules often leads to being placed in isolation, or being “restrained” - held on the floor for as long as an hour by staff members, who students say twist their limbs in painful positions until they stop resisting. Other punishments at World Wide programs have included pepper spraying, handcuffing, being forced into dog cages and being made to sit or stand in uncomfortable positions for hours, according to former students and claims in lawsuits.

Complaining or crying invited further punishment, the former students said, and children who intentionally injured themselves, including attempting suicide, were punished with demerits and extra work, according to former students and a school handbook. The programs’ contracts require parents to release the schools from legal liability.

The schools are typically surrounded by fences or walls to thwart runaways. As an additional deterrent, those who have insufficient accumulated points are required to wear flip flops, even in winter, because, staff members have told them, they make it harder to run.

Even if a student does escape, however, the schools’ isolated locations make hiding difficult, and former students said escapees were usually quickly recaptured. On a recent trip to one of the programs, Seneca Ranch, in Donalds, S.C., which is set amid pastures and woods on 500 acres, there was little along a stretch of rural highway.

World Wide once had behavior modification schools in at least 11 states, as well as countries including Costa Rica and Mexico. In recent years, hit by the recession and accusations of abuse, Lichfield has divested ownership of the schools, which he once likened to McDonald’s franchises. But the programs’ structure and the disciplinary philosophy he helped conceive continue to be the template at most if not all of the schools.

Lichfield, an entrepreneur who has an interest in dozens of Utah, Arizona and Nevada businesses, has along with members of his family raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for political candidates nationally over the years, and was a fundraiser for the 2008 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.

World Wide lawyers say Lichfield’s original company has largely dissolved, and exists in name only. But World Wide was re-registered with the state of Utah in March, according to business records.

Lichfield, family members and business partners have financial interests in a layer of secondary companies through a web of limited liability companies, consulting arrangements and property ownership that Lichfield has acknowledged in depositions - while also saying he does not fully understand the links himself. These entities oversee the marketing, business and educational services for many of the schools, and have received up to one-third of the programs’ gross revenues, according to business records and court depositions.

One former owner of two World Wide schools, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still does business with Lichfield, said that even after Lichfield transferred ownership of a school to him, Lichfield continued to treat him as an employee, including dictating contractual terms.

“He controlled the money flow,” he said.

According to business filings and Lichfield’s court testimony, the schools and programs that have ties to Lichfield and his associates are Horizon Academy, Cross Creek Programs and Old West Academy in Utah; Seneca Ranch in South Carolina; Midwest Academy in Iowa; Red River Academy in Louisiana; and Pillars of Hope in Costa Rica. Annual tuition ranges from about $36,000 to $60,000. Most of the schools denied an affiliation with World Wide.

An example of the complex financial bond between Lichfield and the schools is illustrated in Red River Academy in Lecompte, a small Louisiana town.

The company that owns the school’s property, Octwell LLC, shares an address in LaVerkin, Utah — population 5,000 — with World Wide, of which Lichfield is listed in records as a trustee and part owner. Business filings show Lichfield is also a manager at Octwell. Further, Red River Outsources LLC, which has provided business services to Red River Academy, is owned in part by Lichfield and is based at the same LaVerkin address as World Wide and Octwell - 50 S. State St.

Still, Brent Hall, Red River’s owner, said he was not aware of any connection with World Wide or Lichfield. “Any association that I ever had with World Wide ended nearly a decade ago when I left my employment at Cross Creek Manor as a therapist,” Hall wrote in an email.

Many of the hundreds of adolescents in the schools are sent by parents who say they can no longer cope with their problems, including Asperger’s syndrome, depression and drug use. Many have been sexually or physically abused.

Some former students and their parents, while acknowledging the tough rules at the schools, say the programs’ emphasis on discipline and order helped steer children from serious antisocial behavior. “I don’t think my son would have graduated from high school,” said Jeff Cardwell, 52, an Illinois man who sent his 16-year-old son to Midwest Academy in 2012. “He probably would have ended up in some legal trouble.”

But other parents, students and former staff members say the programs’ harsh culture has had dire consequences, including at least one other suicide, in 2001, when a 17-year-old girl jumped from a balcony at Tranquility Bay, a facility in Jamaica that is now closed as well.

World Wide schools in Samoa, Mexico and Costa Rica, in addition to the Czech Republic program, have closed after concerns were raised about mistreated children. World Wide says that while the school in Mexico was closed by the Mexican authorities, the other three programs were closed voluntarily. World Wide denies that any children in the Mexican program or the others were abused.

Tackled by staff members

Ken Stettler, director of licensing for Utah’s Department of Human Services, said he had received numerous complaints about World Wide programs over the years, and had temporarily closed one of its facilities after finding evidence of child abuse.

He said that while World Wide’s claims about high satisfaction rates among parents may be true, the company’s reasoning was flawed because it discounted the experiences of children who have been mistreated.

“Do you want to have a milkshake with a half teaspoon of dog poop in it? Would you still drink the milkshake?” he said. “There probably is a small percentage who had a bad experience, but why did they have a bad experience?”

Chomakhidze was at Horizon Academy for seven months in 2011 before his mother pulled him out. He said that on one occasion - after he was sent to an isolation room - he began to cry and was tackled by two staff members who twisted his arms behind his back for about 10 minutes.

Chomakhidze also said staff members and students bullied him because he is gay - and even though he had a history of suicide attempts, he said one staff member encouraged him to kill himself. “They said I was a girl,” he said. “They said I was crazy.”

When he slit his wrists, he lost his accumulated points for good behavior, which are necessary to finish the program. The school has denied mistreating Chomakhidze, but acknowledged a policy of taking away students’ points after a suicide attempt.

John, who requested that his last name not be used, was 16 when he was sent to Horizon last year. He said he had been restrained by staff members several times during his five-month stay, and that he became so distressed that he refused to eat for nearly three weeks, losing 15 pounds off his thin frame.

“When I stopped eating, they put me in a room for a few days,” he said, referring to a small isolation room used to punish students. He said his pants and jacket were taken away, leaving him with only his T-shirt and underwear in a room so cold he shivered. Horizon denied that the room was cold or that his clothes were removed.

Taylor Smith, who recently sent her 17-year-old daughter to Horizon, said she had wanted her child to receive therapy for depression. But Smith said it was only after she had enrolled her daughter that she was told there were no licensed therapists on staff. “I sent her there because it was supposed to be a residential treatment center,” she said. She took her daughter home after nine days.

Like some other managers at schools based on the World Wide model, Jade Robinson, Horizon’s director, has moved frequently among programs, including Casa by the Sea, which was shut by the Mexican authorities in 2004.

Another school run by Robinson, Bell Academy, in Terra Bella, Calif., was closed in 2003 after state officials found it operating without a proper license, according to California Department of Social Services records.

Several former students at schools operated by Robinson, a former amateur boxer, said in interviews - some dating back to the 1990s - that he had physically harmed them while disciplining them, and that they remained psychologically damaged.

Robinson declined a request for an interview and to respond to most written questions. But he wrote in an email: “My intent and action for years have always been pure to help teens and their family. It is unfortunate that there are a few past students that are unhappy that want to tarnish my reputation for their revenge.”

He added that he had “always followed the state regulations in all areas and especially on restraints.”

One former student, Matt Hoyler, was 16 when his parents sent him to Casa by the Sea for smoking marijuana and being disobedient.

Hoyler, now 30, said that after violating a rule prohibiting passing gas without permission, staff members had hogtied him with duct tape and rope and left him in that position for eight to 12 hours.

While bound, Hoyler said, Robinson climbed atop him and pressed a knee into his spine while applying extreme pressure with an elbow to the back of his neck. Hoyler said that Robinson, who denied harming Hoyler, had physically hurt him in three or four similar incidents during his 11-month stay.

“It was terrifying,” said Hoyler, who said he still has nightmares about the episodes.