Boot Camp Backlash

updated 06/09/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Codi Rouvinen was just 14 when she started cutting school. When her mother confronted her, she ran away. And so last March a desperate Shannon McCullough sent her daughter to a Costa Rica boarding school called Dundee Ranch Academy that promised to get the girl back on track. "The brochures made it sound like it was the answer to everything," says McCullough, 33, an appliance-repair technician in Contra Costa County, Calif. Instead Codi was made to share a tiny room with four others at a spartan former hotel and watched as staff members exacted discipline by pinning students to the floor, arms painfully twisted behind them. On one occasion, Codi says, she was forced to stand motionless in an isolation room on and off for three days with rest breaks of just two minutes every half hour. "I felt like I was in a cage," she says, "no keys, no way out."

She wasn't the only one. Tipped off by former students, frightened parents and child welfare advocates, Costa Rican authorities had been investigating charges of abuse at the pricey 20-month-old boarding facility, home to about 200 students, mostly from the U.S., for months. Students had allegedly been held incommunicado and forced to run for miles wearing only flip-flops. Physical punishments were common, says Amberly Knight, 31, a former Dundee Ranch director who quit in disgust last August after complaining to the school's American owner, Narvin Lichfield, 41, to no avail. "I know of at least one case where [a student's] arm was dislocated," she wrote last month in a letter to Costa Rica's Minister of Child Welfare.

Finally, on May 20, the powder keg ignited. Summoned to the school's cafeteria by a Costa Rican child welfare officer investigating the claims of abuse, the students were told they were free to leave. "They said, 'You guys have rights, you can't be held against your will,'" recalls student John Hoff, a 17-year-old from Lambertville, N.J., with a history of drug use and violence toward members of his family. "The place just exploded. The kids were saying, 'No rules! We're free!'" After Costa Rican authorities left, students unleashed their pent-up rage, says Hoff, smashing windows, ripping Sheetrock from the wall and destroying computers.

The rebellion didn't stop there. As many as 30 students instantly fled from the school, scattering into the dense forest that surrounds the facility, and by May 27 all but four had caught planes headed for home or other facilities. Dundee Ranch owner Lichfield, a former used car salesman from St. George, Utah, was arrested May 22 on suspicion of unlawful imprisonment of minors. Speaking through his lawyer, Lichfield, who was released without bail on condition that he not leave the country, has denied any wrongdoing. "If there was any mistreatment, it happened without the knowledge of Mr. Lichfield," says Rafael Garcia-Salas, the accused's Costa Rican lawyer.

To many who had followed its history, the school's collapse only confirmed their concerns about a growing industry that advertises tough love and instead produces pain and torment. Dundee Ranch is one of nine boot-camp-style schools, affiliated with the Utah-based World Wide Association of Special Programs and Schools, that specialize in breaking students' resistance to authority through harsh behavior modification. "They call what they do punishment," says Bruce Harris, executive director of Casa Alianza, the Latin American branch of New York City-based Covenant House youth advocacy and rescue group. "We call it cruel and inhumane treatment."

Martha Martin, a Buffalo computer consultant who sent her son Corey to Dundee Ranch in 2001—only to remove him last August after becoming convinced the school was trying to persuade him he had been abused as a child—points out that, with annual fees of up to $25,000, the school targets some of society's most desperate caregivers for maximum financial gain. "They're making money off of parents who are tearing their hair out," she says.

Still, not everyone is cheered by the sunset over Dundee Ranch. John Hoff's parents, John, 45, and Joanne, 44, are left to wonder what to do with their son now that the only institution that ever did him any good has closed. "You need to understand that our son was going down the wrong path—toward an early grave, quite honestly," says the father. Yet for Carey Bock, who enlisted guards to help her retrieve her twins, Geoff and Garred, 17, from Dundee last October, the program's demise is a lifesaver. "I'm glad that they've been exposed. I wouldn't wish Dundee on my worst enemy."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Cathy Free in Salt Lake City, Lori Rozsa and Don Sider in Miami, Michael Haederle in Albuquerque and Auriana Koutnik in Costa Rica

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