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Thursday 26 June 2003


Tough love school sent to timeout
Academy's doors closed indefinitely

By James Varney

Now that the shouting from teenagers and police and prosecutors has faded, there is something almost pastoral about Academy Dundee, this hotel cum tough-love school near the sea.

Stone fountains gurgle among the hacienda-style buildings, the foliage is lush and green, and a brilliant sun burns on both the swimming pool and a pond with an elevated wooden walkway leading to a small island. In the cavernous dining center, some of the handful of remaining staffers eat with parrots perched on their shoulders.

But the story behind this snapshot is anything but serene. Academy Dundee never made it as the tourist spot its builder intended it to be, and it is closed not for the summer but possibly for good. The tumult began in October, when Carey Bock of Mandeville arrived and, accusing the behavior-modification program of being more brutal than beneficial, marched her twin sons out the door.

The saga grew even more bizarre at the end of May, when Costa Rican authorities invaded the campus, told the roughly 200 American teenagers enrolled there they did not have to stay, and arrested the school's owner and founder, Narvin Lichfield.

The echoes of that wild day, which Lichfield said included outdoor orgies and vandalism, are still reverberating. A criminal case is in motion against Lichfield, 41, in the nearby mountain town of Atenas, Costa Rica, an accusation of torture has been filed with the United Nations, and Dundee's supporters and critics are engaged in a battle concerning tactics at Dundee and at 10 other schools chartered by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs, based in Utah. The brouhaha has thrust the company and its curriculum into an international spotlight.

All these developments come as no surprise to Bock.

"I think the closing of Dundee was inevitable," she said. "I believe the only reason that Dundee had remained open as long as they had was because they were operating under the radar of the Costa Rican regulatory agencies. The children at Dundee were subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment; there is no doubt about it."

Bock is not the only New Orleans-area parent in the fray, and not everyone shares her harsh view. In a recent letter to the Tico Times, a popular English-language weekly circulated in Costa Rica, Yvette Miller of Harvey said Academy Dundee had done wonders for her daughter.

"I am so happy with the school and what it has done for my child," she wrote, saying the girl had opened up in ways the mother never dreamed possible. "Dundee Ranch did this for her."

The hullabaloo has prompted both the U.S. Embassy and PANI, the local child welfare agency, to claim they were on top of the situation and had been raising red flags for months -- claims greeted with skepticism in some quarters.

"I think what we're witnessing here is a real cover-your-ass scenario," said Bruce Harris, the executive director of Casa Alianza, a children's advocacy group that last month asked the U.N. Committee on Torture to investigate Dundee.

Lichfield dismisses Casa Alianza as unqualified to pass judgment because Harris never visited Dundee or spoke with any of its staffers.

That criticism is a red herring in Harris' view. Though he conceded he hasn't seen the school personally, he said the group's complaint was made on the basis of at least three sworn statements from parents and children about what went on at Dundee, and the agency is trying to arrange for other former students to return to Costa Rica and testify against Lichfield.

"The reports we've gotten from parents and kids relate what we regard to be cruel and unusual," Harris said, mentioning physical restraints on concrete floors, using food as coercion and lack of adequate health care. "They were breaking kids down, all right, but they weren't building them back up."

Lichfield, meanwhile, says it's his reputation that needs to be rebuilt. Barred from leaving Costa Rica for six months while the case is investigated, he is holed up in a San José hotel. He's no monster, he said, but rather the victim of a monstrous misunderstanding.

"As far as I'm concerned, Costa Rica came in here under spurious allegations and closed down a place that had operated without incident for two years," he said. "I know exactly what is abuse and what isn't, and there was no abuse at all at Academy Dundee. We never held any kids there against their will. I was like Uncle Buck to those kids."

Lichfield, who spent 24 hours in custody following his arrest, said he is unaware of any ongoing criminal investigation of him or his school and hopes to reopen for business within two months.

But that may be overly optimistic. Prosecutors confirmed there is an ongoing probe of activities at the school, but no date for proceedings has been set. Meanwhile, both sides are busy gathering depositions, statements known in Costa Rican law as "anticipated evidence."

"Tough-love" or "behavior-modification" programs such as Academy Dundee -- Lichfield is an owner or part-owner of similar establishments in New York state and South Carolina -- are controversial by their nature. With tuition and costs topping $2,000 a month, they're designed for troubled teenagers and make no bones about the rigors they impose on them. No one denies, for instance, that physical restraints were a part of the Dundee experience.

"But if it sounds like it was hurting people, it's not like that at all," said Antonio Cespedes, 16, a Costa Rican who essentially has been managing the school since it was shut down. "It was used only to calm people down." Cespedes credits the school with saving his life after he turned to drugs two years ago.

Dundee is not the only school chartered by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs that is in the hot seat. In the past few years, a girl committed suicide at the Jamaica school, and authorities in both Mexico and Czechoslovakia filed criminal charges against the couple who ran WWASP schools in those countries.

WWASP officials say most of the complaints against them come from manipulative teenagers who are proven liars, a retort that Harris and Bock dismiss as evasive.

In Dundee's case, some of the most stinging criticisms were made not by students but by a former director, Amberly Knight. Now living in Michigan, Knight wrote a detailed letter to PANI in March outlining what she said were scandalous conditions at the school, including severe overcrowding in triple-bunks; dubious medical care that included prescribing drugs without parental knowledge, double-charging for doctor visits and the like; and widespread reliance on physical punishment and restraint.

Both Ken Kay, the head of WWASP in Utah, and Lichfield have been scathing in their denunciation of Knight, whom they describe, variously, as a disgruntled former employee and a woman spurned romantically by Joe Atkin, Dundee's acting director at the time Bock appeared.

Knight insists she never meant her letter to PANI to be made public and acknowledges it may have violated the terms of a nondisclosure agreement she signed with Lichfield, but she stands by her accusations, she said, and considers Lichfield's and Kay's assaults on her character as a base smear.

"Lichfield did not care, and the children could not complain to outside authorities," she said. "The children were imprisoned in deplorable conditions that we would not tolerate for adult, death row inmates in America. The parents were manipulated and misled by this organization."

Some authorities said Knight's letter triggered PANI's investigation, but officials give different starting dates for the probe. Indeed, all the dates and claims made by groups are confused. For example, last October the U.S. embassy said it had made eight visits to the school since 2001, and that it forwarded concerns to PANI, but none of those concerns appears to have generated a response.

Whatever its starting date, the investigation's pulse quickened May 20 with the arrival at Dundee of Prosecutor Fernando Vargas and an entourage of police and PANI officials. The authorities told the roughly 200 teenagers there that, according to Costa Rican law, no one could compel them to stay at Dundee and they were free to do as they pleased. Pandemonium ensued, with some kids vandalizing cars and property and others engaging in group sex around the pool, witnesses said.

"We had police officers with years of experience telling us it was the most grotesque, pornographic thing they've ever seen," Lichfield said.

Some three dozen students bolted. Though most returned by the end of the day, a handful wound up in PANI shelters. Vargas and his team slapped Dundee with citations for 15 violations of Costa Rican law, ranging from sanitation issues to staffers working without proper permits or students with expired visas. In addition, Costa Rica insisted that Dundee register itself with the Ministry of Education, something Lichfield says he was told he did not have to do when he opened his doors. With the school effectively shut down until those problems are sorted out, Lichfield said his staff worked with parents to fly students back to the states or to other WWASP schools in Mexico or Jamaica. More than two dozen of those students are reportedly enrolled at Tranquility Bay in Jamaica, which is widely regarded as the toughest WWASP institution.

Since then, another prosecutor has taken over the case from Vargas, who was substituting at the time for a prosecutor on vacation. Court officers declined to comment on the case, but the chaotic and confusing nature of the investigation has led to some finger-pointing behind the scenes. Last week, the government announced it had appointed an "ombudsman" to review the actions not only of the prosecutors and PANI, but also of the Ministries of Health and of Education.

Lichfield freely acknowledges he was not registered with any of those agencies. Though that appears to support Bock's contention the school deliberately flew under radar, Lichfield said Dundee was no secret to the government. In the past, he said, some PANI officials had dropped by Dundee and there were no problems. Had they been willing to discuss the matter, rather than appear in force on the campus, he said he would have rectified any alleged violations.

"I've got $2 million invested down here in Dundee, and do you think I'd let that all go down the drain because of some ticky-tack complaints that I could easily fix?" he said.


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