Section 8- (The RMA/CEDU Results)
Lon Woodbury MA. IECA. CEP
Everything you hear is opinion, everything you see is perspective.
Attributed to Marcus Aurelius – 2nd Century AD Roman Emperor
The late 1980s is often considered the peak of the RMA/CEDU schools popularity and success. The RMA student population grew from about 90 in 1984 to almost 200 by 1990 (with ups and downs in student population of course). Some of the wealthiest parents in the country who could have chosen any school or program in the world for their children decided RMA or CEDU were most likely to benefit their child. Seeing CEDU/RMA’s success, new comparable programs started springing up around the western US being referred to as emotional growth, therapeutic, special purpose or special needs residential boarding schools. Some were direct outgrowths of RMA/CEDU as staff left to take their personal experience with them and formed their own school or program. Others were inspired by the success of RMA/CEDU and attempted to improve on the model or had already been evolving independently in this direction for many years with a philosophy comparable in many ways to that of RMA/CEDU’s. The growth in new schools of this type accelerated in the 1990s.
SUCCESS RATE: A frequent question I was asked by parents and referring professionals alike was RMA’s success rate. The short answer is very misleading, so I had to put the answer in context for accuracy. The short, misleading answer based on my personal notes was the school’s graduation rate was about 50%, which by itself was unimpressive. However, one needs to consider the type of student RMA/CEDU enrolled. Most of them were bright with the ability to do well in college and have successful careers and lives. What often led parents to RMA/CEDU were emotional/behavioral problems that led to risky activities-activities not only risky physically, but risky to the child’s future. Remember, most of these students came to RMA as a second, third or even fourth placement, with the previous interventions being failures. This would be referred to in the mental health industry as “treatment resistant.” Most of the previous placement attempts had been in conventional mental health intervention programs, usually residential treatment centers or psychiatric hospitals. So, when a student arrived at RMA/CEDU, they already had failed interventions and their prognosis for a successful future was not good. The key result from the school’s different view of the problem and how to intervene was that virtually all those students completing the program went on to college (often high quality small private colleges), a secondary education school to graduate from high school or some other type of post high school training where they continued to be successful.
Of the 50% that did not complete the program at RMA, there were several types. One type was students whose parents ran out of money (the school was very expensive). The school tried to work with these families but could afford to help only a very few. Some others saw progress in their child and took them back home early. Another type were students who just did not respond positively to the program. These included some whose mental health problems were more serious than originally thought and needed psychiatric help, and also those who were very stubborn in refusing to comply with anything. The latter focused on running away, sabotaging their stay, consciously trying to be expelled, or were so set in their self-destructive ways they just couldn’t succeed at the school. Some in this second category took actions that made the school physically or emotionally unsafe for the other students and they had to be expelled. Many of the expelled students were escorted (parents made the arrangements) to another more intensive program such as intensive psychiatric and/or a secure facility so they couldn’t run away. And, to be fair, there were some who managed to manipulate themselves out of the school who turned out to be right, they didn’t need this kind of intervention. They did fine back home in their unique and often creative ways. The benefit of RMA sometimes even extended to students who never even enrolled. In one example, a father planned to enroll his acting out daughter at RMA, but when he told her she was going to RMA, she straightened up and a placement became unnecessary.
Staff: The school attracted staff who in general were young, experienced, idealistic, dedicated and highly motivated to working with struggling teens. Being credentialed was not a high priority at the time. Some of the staff were successful graduates of CEDU/RMA who came back to share their experience after completing their formal education elsewhere. The staff in general were old enough to have some successful experience working with teens, and young enough to still relate personally to the students. Besides, it takes youthful energy to keep up with teens in general, as any parent can attest. They were idealistic in that they wanted work that could give them satisfaction in feeling like they were really making a positive difference in helping teens. I heard many teachers explain they had turned down better paying jobs in public education, feeling that at RMA they were making a real difference in the lives of their students. The day staff sometimes left at the end of their shift, but often lingered for a time to continue relating with the students in a more informal way, talking about issues that had come up during the day, have dinner with the students and sometimes even staying until the students went to bed. I also found that most staff had an active personal spiritual quest in their spare time. This included activities like bible study, yoga, non-mainstream religious interests, native American customs and other activities to enhance their spiritual life. Although it was not part of the school policy, obviously those staff members in one way or another saw their work with struggling teens as part of their personal spiritual quest and that enhanced their dedication to the kids.
Parents: When I first started at RMA, the first step was to interview inquiring parents over the phone. The purpose was to learn from the parents the problems their child was having to determine if RMA was a good fit, and to describe RMA to the parents so the parents could determine if they thought RMA would be good for their child. Often, I would just let them talk, and many did, endlessly. After several hours of listening to several parents, I realized that most of these parents were defensive. They were making a case they were good, caring parents who had been doing the best they could despite their child’s acting out. It was obvious these defensive parents had had their parenting frequently criticized. This seemed to be society’s (and often mental health professional’s view): “Acting Out children was proof positive of poor and maybe even neglectful parenting.” At the same time, many counselors and therapists I talked with seemed to have the attitude toward parents of: “You messed up your kids; don’t bother us and we will fix them.” One common attitude on the part of parents I talked with was they wanted something different that didn’t include a “shrink” for their child and did not medicate students/patients. Many parents seemed to agree with the summary: “Children need to be heard, not cured.” At the time this seemed to be one of the top selling points among inquiring parents of CEDU/RMA schools. Many parents mentioned to me that this was their last attempt at helping their child. A last stop so to speak.
By the late 1980s, RMA/CEDU had decided blaming parents was an unhealthy attitude toward parents and was a negative for the children. The school was developing a policy of refusing to blame parents and instead accepted most parents as part of the healing process. The school instead, developed ways to do parent training, and gradually were developing parallel programs for the parents, attempting to teach them what their children were going through and prepare the parents to better understand and support what their “new” child needed from their parents to transition successfully back to mainstream society. This was increasingly considered a most important element in healing wounded children.
Comments and discussion welcomed
Continued in Part 8 – Aftermath