Ranch: Riots at Costa Rica school for
troubled young Americans raises
questions about programs
Every night, as he lined up with the
other boys waiting to shower at a school
for troubled youths, Cody Crawford would
gaze up and try to decipher how the
skies over western Costa Rica might lead
him to freedom.
''I figured I could escape and follow the stars, through the jungle, to the American Embassy,'' said Crawford, a 16-year-old Oregon resident. ''I was like: 'I'll be fine out there alone. It won't be as bad as Dundee Ranch.'''
Crawford and dozens of others among the 201 mostly American students rebelled last month at the Academy at Dundee Ranch, trashing the behavior-modification center and demanding to be sent home.
The chaos forced Dundee to close and renewed controversy about such privately run centers, which put children and teenagers through strict programs intended to get them to improve their behavior.
Some parents and alumni swear by the schools, saying they change lives for the better. Critics contend poorly trained staff use physical abuse and brainwashing to scare students into conforming.
Riots broke out when Costa Rican authorities visited Dundee Ranch on May 20 and again two days later and announced that the young people couldn't be held against their will.
''They said, 'You can do anything you want,' and kids started destroying things and leaving,'' said Crawford, who is from Dundee, Ore.
Crawford, who had been at the center for a month, was among students who fled the campus. But others didn't want to go anywhere.
''I would be dead if I had never come here,'' said Steven Davidson, an 18-year-old from San Diego who was less than a month from finishing Dundee's two-year program. ''This was the first good thing I had in my life and now it's gone.''
Interviewed at the ranch while waiting to get a flight home, Davidson said he had been a cocaine and amphetamine user who tried to kill himself three times. A leap through his second-floor bedroom window left him with a scar that runs the length of his head.
''Everyone has a different opinion about what's best for the child, how to fix a child who has gone wrong,'' said
Marvin Lichfield, Dundee's owner, who has been ordered to remain in Costa Rica. ''Is our system strict? It is. Has it worked for hundreds of kids? It has.''
After the mutiny, Lichfield was detained for 30 hours on child abuse charges, but a judge dismissed the charges. Prosecutor Maria de los Angeles Alfaro said later that her office is studying additional complaints of child abuse filed by two former students.
Dundee's brand of discipline didn't come cheap. Minimum monthly tuition was $1,190 in addition to a $2,000 enrollment fee, plus occasional charges of $100 for supplies. Some parents said they paid as much as $2,500 a month.
Even Crawford's stargazing violated Dundee's rules: Newcomers weren't allowed to speak unless spoken to and were forbidden to raise their eyes.
Those who did what they were told slowly earned back basic freedoms and eventually won the right to dole out discipline to lower-ranking enrollees.
Similar approaches are used at 10 other schools with a total of 2,200 students in the United States, Mexico and Jamaica that are coordinated by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, a group in St. George, Utah, founded by Lichfield's brother, Robert.
Association President Ken Kay said that ''directors of our member schools are looking at lessons learned out of Dundee to make sure they aren't doing any actions ... that would lead to the types of allegations we saw at Dundee.'' He called most of the claims against Dundee ''ridiculous.''
Kay said there has never been a substantiated charge of abuse or mistreatment at any schools belonging to the association. However, a previous group that reorganized to become WWASPS had two member schools — in the Czech Republic and Cancun, Mexico — suddenly close after they became the subjects of legal investigations.
Rosalia Gil, president of Costa Rica's child welfare agency, said U.S. diplomats who had visited Dundee alerted her office to keep an eye on the ranch shortly after it opened in October 2001.
After looking into allegations of abuse at the school, Gil's agency told school officials on May 19 to correct 15 violations that included inadequate living accommodations and meals, punishments that qualified as criminal mistreatment, overcrowding and inadequate medical care.
They also said the ranch was operating without a license and was supervised by staff with little or no professional training. They later said 100 of 193 American youths at the school were in the country illegally because their visas had expired.
''We told them if they meet Costa Rican standards, they can operate here, but that never happened,'' Gil said. ''We're talking about human rights. There's a moment you have to act to protect children who can't protect themselves.''
Lichfield countered that while the complaint gave his school 30 days to make improvements, authorities arrived a day after it was delivered. He said he hopes to reopen the school once some $80,000 in damage has been cleaned up, though nearly all workers have left.
Gil said Dundee could reopen if Lichfield addresses her office's concerns.
Flanked by jungle-dotted mountains outside the town of Orotina, 55 miles west of San Jose, Dundee Ranch is a former ecotourism resort. Lichfield said investors spent $1 million converting it into a campus for students ages 11 to 17.
A brook winds past a small swimming pool near cages of parakeets and macaws. A wood-plank bridge across a lagoon leads to the ranch's classrooms.
The boys' and girls' dorms — clusters of orange and tan adobe bungalows — appeared charming from outside.
Inside, the dorms were packed with dozens of bunk beds. Air conditioners did little to cut the suffocating heat and ventilation was poor, three former students said. Gaps between ceilings and walls let bugs, bats and birds slip in.
During the rioting, students kicked holes in dorm walls, tore off window screens and burned books. In a boys' shower room, someone had scrawled ''we want more food'' in black marker, the only piece of non-obscene graffiti on the campus.
''They call this place a resort,'' Crawford said. ''It's actually a prison.''
Crawford's mother, Robin, asked an Oregon court to let her son come to Dundee after he was arrested for possession of marijuana and breaking and entering. She said abuse by older boys had compounded her son's problems with high-function autism.
State officials recommended against public school for Crawford and many private schools said they could not take him because of special dietary needs and learning disabilities.
She said her sister told her that a WWASPS school in Mexico had straightened up her own rebellious son.
An association representative said her son's needs would pose no problem at Dundee, Robin Crawford said. The representative even testified via telephone at Crawford's probationary hearing, assuring the judge that Dundee was not a discipline-based program, according to a court record produced by Crawford's mother.
Like all new arrivals, her son slept in a hallway without air conditioning. He said there were mites in the cereal and dead flies in the rice.
''This wasn't the program I paid for,'' his mother said. ''I was promised therapy in a supportive environment. I was promised three meals a day with fruits and vegetables. I was promised no harsh punishments.''
Another student, a 15-year-old girl from Illinois who worried about reprisals from the school, said staff members often withheld food as a punishment.
Several students told Costa Rican authorities that they suffered through injuries, allergic reactions and intestinal problems without proper medical attention and that medicine sent for some students was given to others, said Alfaro, the prosecutor.
Three former students said that staff members made youths ''sweep the sunshine'' — use a broom to sweep pavement until sunburns formed — and that others were ordered to kneel on sharp rocks.
More serious offenses — such as glancing at a member of the opposite sex — landed students in a 10-by-7-foot room where they were ordered to keep their nose to the wall or the floor. Some students said they were shoved, pushed or beaten.
But Chanel Sortomme, 17, who graduated from Dundee two weeks before the uprising, and three other students interviewed at the ranch said no one was beaten and they disputed allegations that food was scarce and bug-infested.
''There are hundreds of rules — rules for everything you can think of — but those rules are what helps you change,'' Sortomme said. ''At Dundee you learn how to follow the little rules and that helps you become responsible and follow bigger ones back at home.''
Lichfield flew Sortomme and her father to Costa Rica to defend the school to journalists.
John Sortomme, a retirement planner in San Diego, said his daughter went into Dundee ''a very intelligent screw-up'' who had run away from home three times. She came out ''a beautiful, intelligent, powerful young lady.''
On the Net:
Dundee Ranch: http://www.dundeeranch.org
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