Section Three- (The Problems of struggling young people as I saw it)
Lon Woodbury MA. IECA. CEP
Everything you hear is opinion, everything you see is perspective.
Attributed to Marcus Aurelius – 2nd Century AD Roman Emperor
CEDU and Rocky Mountain Academy (RMA) evolved in California out of the turmoil of the 1960s and had been founded by Mel Wasserman. Wasserman was a businessman with no professional credentials in education or mental health, but was a keen observer and student of human nature. He lived in Palm Springs California and in talking with the young people aimlessly hanging around town in the 1960s, realized they had real emotional and relationship problems. This aimlessness was very common around the country at the time during the 60s and is one of the hallmarks of that defining decade. In joining RMA in 1984, the story of the founding I was told was as follows.
Many of these young people had rejected the life styles of their parents and had rejected many of the accepted institutions like schools, corporations, families and mental health facilities looking for meaning in life. Consequently, many were living homeless lives so Wasserman started taking a few into his home, and initiated intensive discussions to try to get to the bottom of what was wrong. Long group discussions resulted that lasted well into the night and he eventually adopted the term “Raps” for these, a commonly used term for “discussions” that was popular at the time.
After a time, I was informed, he decided to go into the school business. He sold his existing business interests and found a property In the San Bernardino mountains in southern California eventually calling it CEDU. His goal was to establish a school for students with behavioral/emotional problems, rejecting the established education and treatment models and developing his own methods. This started in 1967. In 1983, CEDU expanded by establishing RMA outside Bonners Ferry in north Idaho. Acceptance by the Bonners Ferry community was relatively easy since the property had previously been used by an experiential, libertarian back-to-nature school called Academy of the Rockies.
When I joined RMA in August 1984, many of the harsh methods such as those from the controversial Synanon influence had long since been abandoned or watered down. Still, the “raps” continued to be very emotionally confrontational which often resulted in loud verbal but nonphysical exchanges. Shaming, humiliation and punishment were no longer endorsed by the school, but of course many of the students thought being made verbally accountable for their actions was abusive, and of course rogue staff from time to time would lapse into those negative and harmful practices. However, getting to the root of self-destructive attitudes often requires intensive emotional and individual intervention which can be very scary to students. “Getting honest” was a basis of their approach and that was the root of resistance. Manipulations, excuses, playing victim or blaming others were strongly questioned. Being accountable for your words and actions was very important.
By the mid-1980s when I started with RMA, most of the standard approaches of mainstream institutions for treatment and education of adolescents were coming under national criticism. The public was withdrawing from traditional short-term drug and alcohol treatment programs as indicated by the large number of long established programs closing. Mental Health Hospitals and Residential Treatment Centers, were all too often being exposed as being “in it just for the money.” As an example of this, a common cynical claim by young people in these treatment programs was they said they knew when they were going to be considered cured: it was when the insurance ran out.
In addition, public schools were coming under criticism and intense scrutiny from President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983 “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” The time was ripe for a radically different approach to education and helping “struggling teens.” The “Emotional Growth School” concept RMA called itself was a hybrid of mental health treatment, alternative education approaches, wilderness adventure, private legal organization as opposed to public legal organization, parent-choice and residential boarding school structure.
The national debate about these youth problems of course tended to be in generalities, as national controversies naturally do. The reality and the extent of the harm that happened to some of these young people by well-intentioned staff following conventional methods can be better understood by taking a closer look at some of the victims of traditional treatment and education programming at the time. It might be that most young people had been well served by these institutions, but there were enough failures to keep RMA and CEDU very busy and growing. The perceived failures also fostered a rapid increase in comparable private schools and wilderness therapy programs around the country. To fully understand the issues with conventional approaches, it helps to describe the problems of individual students that are behind the statistics. The following is an example from my personal experience interviewing students and their families for enrollment at RMA. (Other examples will be in the next section).
The first student that comes to mind in my experience was a 16-year-old girl from southern California. In high school as a Junior she had B+ grades and had been quite active socially in her school. More recently, she had successfully completed a drug treatment program but came back home to a horrible relationship with her parents. When I interviewed them, she appeared like a rather bubbly cheer-leader type with a subtle hidden anger. The parents were subdued, and I found out later felt a lot of guilt. I heard the following story from both her and her parents.
She had been curious about what this thing called marijuana was all about. She bought some marijuana along with a pipe, brought it home and smoked some in her bedroom. Her parents caught her smoking it, and followed the conventional advice from many substance abuse experts of the time. They took her to a drug treatment program to enroll her. She insisted she had only done it once, but nobody believed her. Everybody “knew” that druggies lied about their use. In the program, the staff focused on breaking down her “denial,” and led her to believe she would never “graduate” until she came clean about her “addiction.” The other participants called her a liar. And worst of all, her parents didn’t believe her either and left her in the program.
Since nobody believed her denials, she eventually decided the only way she could get out of the program was to come up with a convincing story about her struggles with her non-existent addiction, about how she struggled to overcome this presumed addiction, and convince them she was sincere about wanting to change and start living a clean and sober life. She was successful in fostering this story but living a lie like that has a price.
As you might imagine, she was devastated and the trust that is supposed to bind a family together had been totally shattered. After she completed the program and returned home, somehow, she finally convinced her parents she had been telling the truth all along and the only lie she had made was to make up the story about her addiction struggles. The problem for the parents was then to figure out a way to rebuild the family on a foundation of trust, rather than on punishment, resentment, fear and guilt.
Their decision on a solution led them to RMA where I met them in admissions interviews and heard their story. She enrolled, did well and the family was well on their way to the healing they needed by the time she graduated. The lesson I learned from that was that in many cases, the conventional intervention for individual children was based on a general theory of a problem instead of adequately addressing the specific problems/issues the child had which would be more effective.
Comments and discussion welcomed
To Be Continued in Section 4 (The Problem description continued)