People Magazine reports in its October 23 issue on the shocking reality of Heartland Christian Academy, a boot camp for juvenile delinquents in Missouri. Founded by a rich insurance executive named Charles Sharpe, it sounds as though it operates on the principle of tormenting these kids as much as possible. The lead paragraph of the article notes that 14-year old Matt Smith has been paddled with a two-and-a-half foot wooden paddle 300 times in the last 19 months -- that's almost 16 times per month, or about every other day. Some of the punishments were for things like looking at a girl or passing a note. At some point, isn't it obvious that the paddling isn't working and perhaps some other tack should be tried? It was Smith who stated, "They take the Bible and turn it into a punishment."
The whole article is depressing beyond words. The school seems to be built around a model that focuses on punishment and shame as the primary or only antidote to adolescent bad behavior. The punishments include frequent paddlings, isolation, food deprivation, hours of extra chores, and shaming. The shaming includes forcing girls to wear an ugly "granny" dress, and boys to wear a bow tie and suit. Those who run away or self-harm have to wear an orange jumpsuit.
Past investigations revealed that one 16 year old student was forced to sit in a metal chair overnight. Five staffers were also arrested for forcing 11 kids chest-high into a manure pit. They were acquitted on the grounds that that is not child abuse according to the legal definition.
Except for specific investigations in response to specific complaints, however, the State of Missouri does not monitor, supervise, or regulate Heartland Christian Academy. It is a faith-based facility and therefore free of any state monitoring. Aside from my disapproval of the actual tactics used at Heartland, I am frightened by the vast opportunties for abuse and sadism in an unmonitored institution based on a punitive a model with scores of potential victims who, as "troubled teens," will automatically be seen to lack credibility if they report.
I can only imagine what it is like to live in this kind of punitive atmosphere as a teenager. Especially at that age, I would imagine it would feel like a hopeless and despairing eternity of being trapped and helpless and abandoned. I am sure some or most of the kids did bad things, and shaming and punishment seem like they should work and that it's the "tough" thing to do. But I suspect that these tactics produce only short-term compliance and lead to far worse behaviors and misery for these kids in adult life.