Millennials and Behavior Modification Programs

Photo: Christopher Campbell on Unsplash 


Teen behavioral modification programs are notorious for alleged neglect and abuse marketed as “tough love.” These so-called “treatment” programs are essentially for-profit boarding “schools” that prey upon parents by claiming to straighten out troubled teens. Millennials who, in this article, are people born primarily in the ‘80s and ‘90s, are not the sole generation that’s been victim to these camps. However, Reagan’s War on Drugs not only gave rise to hysteria over teen drug-use but actually promoted such programs, cultivating the billion-dollar industry teen residential programs are today. Since there are already great articles that cover the history of the industry, this one will focus on how millennials are humanizing survivors of these exploitative practices in a way not commonly seen before.


The “tough love” model these programs follow, which claims to straighten out “troubled” teens, originated with the “antidrug cult” Synon in 1958. Closed in the ‘70s after allegations of abuse, it advertised itself as a program that could “break” new members using hard labor, humiliation, isolation, and sleep deprivation. Out of Synon sprung a number of notorious programs, including Reagan-era Straight, Inc. antidrug program, also closed after allegations of abuse, and the many for-profit behavioral modification “schools” owned and operated by WorldWide Association of Specialty Programs & Schools (WWASPS) in the ‘90s and ‘00s. WWASPS is all but dissolved now, following--you guessed it--lawsuits and allegations of abuse, but a lot of the programs that exist today follow its educational and disciplinary guidelines.


The allegations of calculated and widespread abuse, neglect, and torture, as one of the WWASPS lawsuits claims, is reminiscent of POW and internment camps we learn about in history class. It’s the kind of scandal you see on the news that makes you think “glad that’s not me.” But what makes it stand out from other shocking events like the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII or the Casa Pia pedophilia scandal is its relationship to the public. Until now, most scandals are made impersonal with time, the limits of technology, and/or geography. Memoirs, documentaries, and interviews, while they succeed in evoking deeply empathetic responses, do not make the situations or the survivors tangible to the audience. They’re horrible situations but so untouchable that can easy feel no more real than a TV show or novel.


The conversation surrounding behavioral modification programs is much the same--except for one crucial difference. A great example of this is a BBC 2 news piece on YouTube entitled "Locked in Paradise.” It’s essentially a quick investigation into Tranquility Bay (TB), an ironically-named WWASPS school closed in 2009. The piece was filmed before TB closed following national scrutiny of its conduct. The video is moderately informative, but the YouTube comments are what matter most. Actual survivors of TB and WWASPS, including two former students featured in “Locked in Paradise,” are sharing what they think of the video with other commenters. Although it was posted in 2012, the most recent comment dates to March 2019. There are similar conversations taking place on Reddit, including a 2012 IAMA with a survivor of WWASPS, and there are likely more elsewhere.


The YouTube comments might not seem very noteworthy, but I think it’s the first time I’ve seen the subjects of a documentary—and a situation I couldn’t imagine going through—talking to other commenters. Pre-internet, survivors of horrific situations and subjects of documentaries couldn’t simply join casual and global conversations about what they went through—there wasn’t a space for them to do so. The YouTube commenters who experienced WWASPS do not have to be passive, voiceless subjects—they can easily voice their thoughts and, perhaps most importantly, they can do so without forfeiting comfort or privacy. In turn, those who didn’t experience or even know about WWASPS or other programs can directly ask them questions or express sympathy. It is hard to imagine a time before the internet where this could happen so casually, publicly, and globally.


The YouTube comments from survivors are also a reminder that such experiences are extremely recent. They aren’t our parents’ or grandparents' generation, but our own. Having attended these programs between the ages of 12 and 21, many are now in their twenties and early thirties, living their lives and possibly struggling with emotional or physical repercussions of these programs. They’re also a reminder that we as a society haven’t “progressed” as much as we like to believe, especially because this sort of abuse is not a thing of the past. "Behavioral modification" camps still exist in the United States, as do gay conversion camps for minors and the Trump-era concentration camps for migrant children.


The comments survivors of WWASPS left under that video are a fascinating example of the power social media can give victims of systematic abuse. Hopefully, utilizing these platforms not only makes their own past sufferings feel personal to a global audience but also brings to light the unseen pain thousands of children in similar programs are experiencing right now.


Charlotte Lerner-Wright graduated in 2018 from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. An apparent masochist and downright nerd, she will return to school in the fall of 2019 to get her Master's in history at the University of Edinburgh. Outside the classroom, you can find Charlotte cuddling her three tiny dogs, drinking Thai iced tea, and drawing while binge-watching Netflix. She hopes to one day use history to empower the disenfranchised and invoke lasting change.

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