This story has been contributed by the poster Aileen Chu on the webpage of National Youth Rights Association. One of their tasks is to bring awareness of the kind abuse of nature, which are created when you forcefully drag people out in the nature against their will. All rights to this story belongs to the original writer:
My name is Aileen Chu. I lived in Naperville, IL. In 2002, I was sent to On Track Wilderness Program in Mason, TX and then attended Mission Mountain School in Condon, MT from 2002-2004.
I was sixteen. Due to unaddressed issues at home and in my life, I was very depressed and angry. I fought with my parents, used drugs, skipped school, got arrested for shoplifting twice, ran away and snuck out, stole money and cars, and more. When I told my parents that I was going to drop out of school, they decided to send me away.
My friend had been sent away to a school in North Carolina the week before. His parents sent him away because he stayed out all night once. He ran away from that school and stole a car with an accomplice, but then turned himself in. As a result, he was sent to a school belonging to the same company in Jamaica, where he said that he witnessed staff beating other students.
Others I knew were sent to wilderness or boot camp and military school. They’re back in the same town as depressed and angry as ever, still on drugs, worse for the wear.
It was September 24, 2002. I made plans to sneak out that night but they fell through. I went to sleep at 2 a.m. and woke up at 4 a.m. to a voice saying, “Aileen, you’re going camping in Texas.” I opened my eyes and two strangers were in my room—one male and one female. My parents were nowhere in sight, and I found out later that they had left the house. The people told me to get dressed. I wanted to use the bathroom and the woman came with me. I wasn’t allowed any privacy and I was very confused.
They told me to come with them. We got into their car and drove to O’Hare. I still didn’t understand what was going on. When we got there, it hit me that I wasn’t dreaming. I demanded to know more. They said I’d be gone for a month. This seemed like the end of the world to me because I was supposed to go to the homecoming dance with a long-time friend in a week. I called his house collect and left a frantic message saying I’d been kidnapped.
I become more panicked and angry. I started yelling and demanded that the woman let me use her cell phone. I called my mother and started yelling at her, asking how she could do this to me. I ran into the street and then tried to run away. The man and police tackled and restrained me. I crumpled and ate the paper that turned custody over to the escorts and we went to the police station to get another copy.
My experience with these escorts was particularly traumatizing because I had no idea what was going on. I was taken away in the night by two strangers, and I had never even heard of these therapeutic programs or escorts.
We landed in Austin and drove four hours or so to Mason, Texas. I refused food or water and cried the entire time. When we arrived, they took my clothes, jewelry and made me remove any nail polish. They made me strip down and squat and cough in front of them. I had no idea what was going on. They drove me out to the field where the other students were. This was On Track Wilderness Program. I cried the first day and didn’t do much of anything.
There was a girls’ group and a boys’ group. We had about four people in our group. We weren’t allowed to go near or look at the boys. I don’t remember much. I blocked out a lot of my memories. We bathed once a week using a shower bag. We hiked in the mornings, set up camp and worked on projects or had various activities. I enjoy nature and am athletic, so I could enjoy some aspects of the program. They made us drink a lot of water, but we had to have permission to use the bathroom. There were quite a few times that they made me wait until I peed on myself, which was very shameful.
The staff didn’t appear to have been trained to help teenagers with specific psychological issues or substance abuse issues. Therapists only came out to the field occasionally for brief meetings. For instance, I binged at meals to alleviate pain and anxiety, and the staff, only aware of anorexia as an eating disorder, let me eat as much as there was. I didn’t know I had a problem with eating until later. A staff member continuously berated me about being an addict. I was in denial about my drug problem, but they apparently did not have experience with addiction because it is not something that someone can hammer into your head. I would just be confused when he got mad at me for not admitting that I was an addict. I don’t remember if therapists were always present at therapy “circles.” I seem to recall times when there were no therapists present, but the staff did not appear to be qualified to handle some of the subject matter. The staff members were competent as camp leaders, but they could have handled many problems better with training or perhaps better qualifications. They didn't know how to handle us and usually just reprimanded us unnecessarily. This lack of thorough training even led to a student’s death later on in my stay.
There was a girl in my group who didn’t comply with the rules and tried to get around them. The staff yelled at her aggressively, but yelling or getting her in trouble didn't get through to her. But I ended up carrying the load, literally, when she and I were the only students left in the group because I wouldn't participate in being mad at her. I participated in the program because I decided early on to "kill" and bury myself and get through this month. I was very tough and liked being outdoors, so I could bear it. The staff liked that I worked so hard so I didn’t get on their bad side as much.
I grew up with an intolerable fear of getting into trouble and aimed to please. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it was the way I lived, I didn’t feel fulfilled and was constantly depressed, afraid and angry. I was used to it, though, and both wilderness and therapeutic boarding school reinforced this way of living. This kind of mentality is what led to me harboring all my anger until I was an adolescent and until I felt more empowered to fight back against my parents. The fear I felt at wilderness and boarding school reinforced the fear I felt getting in trouble as a child, when I would be beaten and was scared out of my mind. It didn’t teach me to think and make responsible decisions for myself, and that hurt me greatly later on.
The one thing I remember most from wilderness was when a student died. His name was Chase and he was 17. The other girl left in my group was on her solo, which is when students camp by themselves for a number of days before they graduate. I slept in a single tent that night, and the boys’ tent was nearby. The boys were talking after they were supposed to have been quiet. I heard a staff member yell at them to be quiet. They must have started talking again, because the staff pulled them out of the tent. They were going to make them sleep outside in tarps as punishment. As I recall, Chase talked back to the staff member. I didn’t make out what he said. The staff member said aloud that Chase shoved him. From the conversation and noises I heard, I gathered that they had restrained him. He was spitting at one of them, so a large staff member laid down on his face. My tent was slightly unzipped, so I could hear everything and see some of what was going on. The other boys were standing there with the staff. The police came to take Chase, but he had vomited and choked on it, since they had restrained him improperly. They tried to resuscitate him, but he was dead.
This experience was horrific. I had never watched somebody die, much less be killed by the negligence of these people whose care we were in. I think I suppressed most of my feelings surrounding this event, but I still feel extremely sad when I think of it--six years later. This never should have happened.
After that, I had to join the boys’ group and later graduated. I found out that instead of going home, I was to be sent to an all girls’ boarding school in Montana for two years. My parents came to the graduation, but again, escorts took me to the boarding school. This time, however, I went without incident. They said I was an angel, but really my spirit was just broken. I was back to being "a good little girl" because I was helpless to do anything about my situation.
I went to Mission Mountain School on October 31, 2002. I left in March or April 2004, while I was supposed to be on a home visit. I just never returned. Boarding school helped me learn a lot about myself, but it was also hurtful and detrimental in other ways. We did a lot of physical labor on a regular basis and as a punishment. Maintenance of the campus was a large priority, which I didn’t think was too strange, since I grew up mowing my own lawn and shoveling my own driveway. But we were also expected to do work on the headmaster’s house and property, which was a little ways down the street. It was even considered a privilege at times to go work on his property. I found this a little strange and manipulative, since our parents were already paying a lot in tuition and additional costs. I believe tuition was around $5,000 or more monthly, but I cannot be sure.
We were forced to buy a large amount of equipment. A lot of the clothing or items I said I would not use (and which were not some of the mandatory equipment) they still forced me to take and made my parents pay for, e.g., expensive wool pants and a sweater I said I would never wear because wool irritates my skin. I never did wear either item.
One winter, the staff said the group was doing badly and that we were going to be put on intervention. This meant sleeping out in the woods in summer tents in snow and -20 degree weather. The tents were not meant for winter camping and often collapsed under snow. One of the girls in my tent slept in a frigid lake because water seeped in. We were given short times to all use the bathroom or brush our teeth and take care of such tasks. We ate in the cold, albeit in a tarp-covered pavilion. We spent all day working on moving piles of brush in the woods. There were no academics, no showers, and no phone calls home. Going indoors was a privilege we had to earn, even for group therapy. One night, one of the girls said something offensive and we had to stand outside in the cold for hours until she apologized. This went on for some weeks. Many girls got a disorder that was short of frostbite and caused their extremities to turn purple or black in the cold.
Again, I don’t remember much. I always refused to take antidepressants, but Dr. Hauser, the psychiatrist who worked occasionally with the school, talked me into it by telling me it was to help me while doing therapeutic work and that I had the choice to get off it. But once I agreed and was on it, I was on it. I was given a couple other medications at times, but I was on Lexapro regularly. I ran away in April 2003, and my dosage was doubled. I had no choice about it. After I left the school, I wanted to get off the medication. I didn’t know anything about how it worked and quit cold turkey, which caused me to feel sick, dizzy and have shakes and noises inside my brain. I found out that I had to wean myself off of the medication because it was an SSRI. After I stopped taking it, I felt as if I had just woken up or come out of a cloud.
As I mentioned above, I ran away in April 2003. I performed well at the school, as we were taught to do. I worked on some of my issues but I still had a lot of anxiety and pain. I ran away but had an emotional breakdown. I broke into a church to find sanctuary and eventually turned myself back in. After this, I had more attention from the school in terms of therapy. Some of this, such as allowing my parents to come visit me, was good, but not all of it.
I didn't agree with all of their therapy methods. One thing all the students were mandated to do was disclose "histories." This meant filling out packets of questions related to specific subjects. There was a sexual history, a drug and alcohol, a violence and abuse, and others. I complied and answered all the questions very honestly and was forthcoming. These histories were shared with our parents by fax and over the phone. I now regret this because I lost all my privacy and still have a hard time maintaining an appropriate amount of privacy in my life now. While some things were important to confront, being forced to disclose everything about yourself, including very private matters that should not concern others, even your parents, was very invasive. There is a difference between dishonesty and privacy, and I still feel violated thinking about how I allowed myself to participate in disclosing these histories. Privacy was something that wasn't allowed at these kinds of programs.
The school used various methods to control us. The headmaster, John Mercer, would come on campus and hold special group therapy sessions, sometimes berating girls mercilessly. I don’t believe he had a license to practice psychology or therapy. If we talked about anything the staff deemed “bad,” we got in trouble. For instance, some of us girls were complaining that our parents paid a lot of money and the headmaster just got a classic Porsche and a mobile home. We got in trouble for even discussing money, though I don’t know to this day whether our complaints were valid or not. We were told normal, healthy things, such as masturbation or sexuality, were “bad.” If somebody masturbated, they were a sex addict. We were allowed to call home twice a week, but this was a “privilege.” Mail was strictly controlled as well.
The school pitted the students against each other. We used Q&F forms to report each other, and they told us that it was for our own good. As a result, many girls acted falsely, which I found out after I left the school. The school also kept us in suspense by controlling our release dates. The program was supposed to be two years, but they held some girls for much longer or pushed back release dates because they thought the student wasn’t ready yet. Sometimes this seemed indiscernible because the student seemed to perform well. When girls turned 18, they were no longer under the custody of the school, so they were legally allowed to leave. However, girls that tried to leave when they were 18 got in trouble. Sometimes, the parents would pull the student from the program, but most of the parents didn’t know everything that happened at the school and so trusted the school. My parents let me leave in March 2004 because they had talked to the school about letting me graduate in June so that I could be with my peer group in college, but the school changed their minds and were planning to hold me longer.
I probably didn’t have as hard a time at either wilderness or boarding school as other girls. I am naturally athletic and a hard worker, and I enjoy being outdoors. I also have a need to do well, and this probably helped me get through the programs, though it didn’t help me truly change. I do take issue with how addiction was treated in either place. At wilderness, they didn’t seem to really know how to handle it, besides by telling us that we were addicts. At boarding school, people were slapped with addict labels all the time, be it food addiction, sex addiction, drugs, alcohol, codependency, and more. A.A. was a large part of the programming. We had our own little A.A. meetings once a week. I went along with it and even reverted to my parents’ religion at one point. But after I left, I went to A.A. and N.A. meetings for a while and they made me feel worse. On my own, I was able to stop using drugs, simply because I care about myself and my loved ones now. At boarding school, they didn’t get to the root of a lot of problems. Their website now says that they don’t do behavior modification, but that is precisely what they do. We had a system to report on other students. Individuals were singled out or the whole group had to take part in “consequences” which were really just punishments, as I later learned in a college child development course. They helped remove me from my home environment, but they also caused damage. I have nightmares about boarding school.
Even though I didn’t graduate, the boarding school taught me to “be good” and revert back to my childhood fear of getting in trouble. I spent two years trying to be good, joining my parents’ church, then dating a man because he seemed responsible and kept me in line. After two years of this, I had earned my A.A. degree, which was good. But then I realized that I wasn’t being myself and was still depressed, angry and unfulfilled. Upon this realization, I left the man I was dating, dropped out of the university I had transferred to and began using drugs and alcohol and being promiscuous again. This led to further drug use and other very damaging activities. This backlash was severe and I was so confused that I ended up cutting off contact with my family and harming myself. Because of this, I am still experiencing and will experience for the rest of my life repercussions.
Now, I have come to a place where I am making my own decisions and have my own goals. I am thankful that my parents intervened, but what I really needed was their love and attention. The institutions they used as intervention caused a great deal of damage themselves. I saw an anti-psychiatry museum in Hollywood recently, and although the museum was overblown, Chase, the boy who died at wilderness, was in one of their presentations. I was reminded afresh of what happened and was greatly disturbed. Perhaps I needed an awakening, rude or otherwise, at sixteen, but there could have been other ways. I met many students who, like my friend who had been sent away, could have been helped with a little patience and attention from their families. There were so many who were just acting like teenagers or who were just depressed and needed some help, not to be sent far away and to be isolated from their families.
While these programs have the opportunity to be helpful, the behavior modification and control is harmful to adolescents who are turning into young adults and who need to learn to truly make their own choices. In that way, my growth and development was stunted. They also need to reject students who just need more attention from their parents or who are just acting like normal teenagers and don’t need an extreme intervention. These programs also need to abide by laws, train staff properly and be up front about what is going on. Nothing is perfect nor works for everybody, but in the case of these programs, there are a lot of things that need to be done better, especially since they have such a huge responsibility with the lives of children in their hands.
The On-Track wilderness program is closed. A boy died at the camp.
The original statment
DEATH AT MASON COUNTY PROGRAM NOT THE FIRST FOR COMPANY THAT RUNS IT (By Jonathan Osborne, AMERICAN-STATESMAN, October 23, 2002)
The Brown Schools (which owned the wilderness program) from the wiki database on Fornits