Carolina Springs Academy Teaches Kids to Respect Authority and
Follow the Rules
So Why Did Two State
Agencies Need to Sue to Force it to Get Licensed and Follow State
by Scott Shackford
Two stories from Carolina
From an interview: Cara, 16,
from Aurora Ill., was involved with drugs. “I was defiant to my
parents,” she said. “We had some really bad fights.” Her father
brought her to Carolina Springs Academy nine months ago (tricking
her by telling her he was bringing her on a business trip).
She said the school helped
her get back on track and learn to make better decisions. She hasn't
done any drugs or smoked cigarettes since she's been in the program.
She'll be going home to visit family for Christmas. It's only the
second time she's been home during her stay at the academy. She'll
be graduating from the program early next year and plans to return
home to study photography at a community college there.
From a staff report from the
South Carolina Department of Social Services in October from an
interview with two boys who had run away from the facility: “He has
been at CSA for 1 1/2 months. He was placed at CSA after being
discharged from a psychiatric hospital in [location deleted]. He was
in the psychiatric hospital twice for possibly being suicidal and
for being assaultive. He said he was told that he was going to a
place where they would provide therapy by a trained staff
(counselors, etc.). He said CSA has no professional staff. He said
he ran away because he doesn't want to be there.
“He saw Dr. McCord and “Miss
Becky” for the first time since he was placed. He said he is on
Risperdal and Paxil. He said the residents have to ask permission to
eat, stand up, sit down, take a drink. He said they are not allowed
to talk while eating... He said the toilets do not have doors or
shower curtains, and the plumbing doesn't work well--there's no
“He said after running away
and coming back, he had an anxiety attack. They would not give them
anything for that. He said they are on restriction for running away,
and they have to get up every night at 3:00 a.m. for a week and walk
around the field for 1 1/2 hours. He said two other boys ran and the
rest of the children had to get up at 4:00 a.m. and stay up until
they came back at 9:00 p.m.
“He said for four days he
had to sleep on a mattress in the cafeteria because he was on
isolation. His parents came to check on him and he couldn't see
them... His mattress was put back on his bed the day his parents
came... He said the staff has taken everyone's shoes. The children
had on flip-flops and socks.
“He told of a child that
compared this facility to George Orwell's book, 1984, and lost 2000
points and was demoted from level 3 to level 1. He said in the
seminars the staff tell you your only friends are the staff and they
twist your thinking. He said they deprive you of all your freedoms.”
On the fringes of the small
town of Due West, located on the fringes of Abbeville, is a small
school by the name of Carolina Springs Academy. Carolina Springs
Academy is a school for troubled teenagers, or “defiant teens” as
some of their marketing likes to describe them. The kids found at
the school were sent there by their parents because they didn't know
what else to do with them.
The school is one of those
“tough love” academies that came into vogue during the ‘80s as the
children of baby boomers began reaching their teen years and began
acting up. Although different from a military school, schools like
Carolina Springs Academy operate under strict regimented routines
where students earn privileges by complying with school rules and
lose privileges for disobeying them.
The World Wide Association
of Specialty Programs (WWASP), an umbrella group that promotes seven
of these type of facilities, markets Carolina Springs Academy with
the statement, “Carolina Springs Academy is an innovative and
effective program for teens who are struggling in their home,
school, or community: it teaches values, integrity, honor, and
respect for authority. It helps these teens become an asset to the
Ironically, Carolina Springs
Academy has been getting into trouble for the past year. Two state
agencies, the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Department
of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) have been taking legal
action against the school. According to the agencies, Carolina
Springs Academy has not shown much respect for the state's authority
to monitor the school's behavior and require certain operational
One of the boys' bunk rooms
at Carolina Springs Academy. Two state agencies had to threaten to
have the facility closed in order to get the school to comply with
housing regulations for the children.
A Checkered Past
Narvin Lichfield started
Carolina Springs Academy in the fall of 1998 as a sister to a school
his family owned in Utah. The majority of the school's first
students were brought in from the Morava Academy in the Czech
Republic, an academy formerly associated with the network of
schools. The reason the students were transferred to Carolina
Springs Academy is because Czech authorities closed the Morava
Academy and charged the facility's operators with abusing the
children there. Supporters of the facility argued that the police
had been manipulated by a disgruntled ex-employee and some students
who lied in order to attempt to get out of the program.
DSS representatives first
examined Carolina Springs Academy in December of 1998 to find out
some information about when the school would submit applications to
be licensed as a residential treatment care facility. According to
DSS's reports, then-Director Richard Byars told them that Carolina
Springs Academy was a boarding school, not a treatment facility, and
was not required to be licensed by DSS. The school was already in
operation, though it had not yet received accreditation (The school
had submitted an application to an accreditation organization
located in the Northwest U.S.). DSS filed for an injunction to stop
the facility from operating until it was in compliance with state
law at the end of December. A judge refused the injunction at that
time, but required Carolina Springs Academy to come into compliance
with state regulations by January 15.
Over the course of several
months DSS made multiple trips and interviewed several students at
the school. Some of the problems they uncovered included:
° Inadequate information in
students' records that failed to describe their history and any
problems they may have.
° Children were not being
given prescribed medication for emotional problems such as bipolar
disorder and depression. Byars told DSS representatives that he
allowed children to stop taking medications if they felt they didn't
° Staff members were using
restraints on troublesome children without proper training. One girl
said that children were handcuffed to their beds for disciplinary
° A psychologist DSS had
been told was treating the children had never been to the facility.
° After a representative
from DHEC told Byars the buildings weren't up to standards and if he
didn't fix them, DHEC would close the school, Byars forced some of
the older boys in the program to stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. working
to fix the buildings with power tools.
° Children were told that if
they caused too much trouble they would be sent to one of the
related facilities overseas in Jamaica or Samoa where the program
was much tougher. Some alleged that if they mentioned any physical,
sexual or emotional abuse that occurred in Carolina Springs Academy
they would also be shipped overseas.
° One student alleged that
staff members at the facility forcibly removed a girl's belly button
ring with a pair of pliers.
° Much of the staff had
little or no education or experience dealing with troubled children.
Byars himself had no college degree.
° “Junior Staff” (students
who had achieved a certain level in the program) were involved in
the discipline of other children. Students had also been involved in
the strip searching of other students.
° A child threatening
suicide was handcuffed and bound and gagged with duct tape.
° Inadequate sewage systems
and physical space for the number of students they planned to deal
In April, (after several
extensions of the time allowed for compliance) DSS informed Carolina
Springs Academy that they would have to make some changes if they
wanted to remain open. As part of a court order that would allow the
facility's licensing, DSS determined Byars to be unqualified to be
the school's director and soon afterwards he was dismissed. Physical
problems with the structure of the school would be repaired. Any
building for housing children must be approved by DHEC, DSS and the
local fire marshal. Children would no longer be permitted to perform
A couple of structural
changes in the program were also required. DSS required that
children be allowed to attend off-campus activities at least twice
per month, regardless of how far they've progressed in the program.
Prior to the change, students needed to reach a certain stage in
order to attend off-campus events. DSS also required that students
be allowed more opportunities to call parents in privacy and that
the academy stop reading the contents of students' mail before
forwarding it to parents.
After several other checks
and analyses of the facility, Carolina Springs Academy was finally
licensed as a “child caring institution” by DSS on October 29,
nearly a year after DSS first got involved with the school.
But by that time, DHEC had
begun taking a closer look at the facility and also pursued an
injunction to force it to close because it was not appropriately
licensed. DHEC also fined the facility $5,000 in March for operating
without a license. As with DSS, DHEC contends that Carolina Springs
Academy is a residential treatment facility and therefore falls
under certain licensing requirements. DHEC's actions are still under
consideration as it analyzes the facility to make a final
determination of whether it's a boarding school or a treatment
facility. A finding is expected in mid-January.
War of Semantics
Current Carolina Springs
Academy Director Elaine Davis believes that a lot of the conflict
resulted from some confusion when the school was being founded about
what sort of facility it would be.
“Mr. Lichfield had talked to
some people and [he] was told they didn't have to be licensed by the
state in order to run a boarding school,” she said. There is a
spectrum of facilities that serve the needs of troubled children
that run from simple motivational institutions to full blown
treatment centers for drug use and emotional problems. Davis said
Carolina Springs Academy falls on the lower end of the spectrum.
“We deal mostly with a lot
of conduct disorder,” she said. “They start failing in school.
Parents feel like they've got to save that child's life and
education with behavior management.” She said that students
determined to have more serious psychiatric or medical problems are
referred to their WWASP schools that do offer professional treatment
in those areas.
However, according to DHEC's
records and their claims in the lawsuit, the original plans for
Carolina Springs Academy did include a designation as a residential
treatment facility. In September of 1998 a lawyer for Lichfield
contacted DHEC requesting information about the development of a
residential treatment facility in South Carolina in a different
location. DHEC informed them that the school did need to go through
a review and licensure proceeding to operate in South Carolina.
Furthermore, DHEC informed them that a state health plan from 1997
was used to project needs for future beds and facilities. According
to their projections, South Carolina had no need for additional
facilities, and due to the nature of the plan, would not be
permitted to license the facility in South Carolina at all.
In order to prevent the
designation of being a residential treatment facility, Carolina
Springs Academy does not have any licensed medical experts,
psychologists or psychiatrists on their staff. Outside therapists
and counselors are brought in at the parents' expense and approval
in order to treat any problems the children may have in those areas.
Medication is dispensed through a specialized service because
without a license, the school is not permitted to dispense it
So, how exactly does a
school treat students with behavioral problems without actually
providing any of the psychological and emotional treatments that
would require them to be subjected to state oversight? Besides the
regimented schedule and system of punishment and rewards, the school
also has students watch “emotional videos”--videos on issues like
drug abuse, racism, self-esteem and other areas intended to help
student's emotional growth.
But the primary avenue of
behavior modification is through a program called TASKS (short for
Teen Accountability, Self-Esteem and Keys to Success). TASKS is a
series of seminars and workshops for teens and their parents
designed to “work on such specific issues as: accountability,
honesty, integrity, trust, choices, responsibility, anger and
especially self-esteem.” But the make-up of these seminars has been
a source of criticism against the WWASP's collection of
schools--including accusations that the schools are subjecting
families to “brainwashing” techniques.
School or Cult?
The TASKS seminars are
conducted by outside facilitators for Carolina Springs Academy. The
secretive seminars use a system of exercises, lectures and
confessionals in an attempt to help individuals recognize what about
themselves is “not working” and change their behavior.
That's how the promoters of
the seminars and those who support them describe it. The seminars,
however, have a very unusual and somewhat cloudy history. The
seminar techniques are an off-shoot of a form of personal and
business motivation seminars commonly referred to as “est” (an
acronym for the organization founding the technique). Est has been a
controversial motivation system, and participants have tended to
come out either feeling as though they've been emotionally renewed
or psychologically scarred.
Participants are required to
take a vow of secrecy not to reveal the details of what happens in
these seminars. According to a DSS report, Byars refused to even
explain to them what happened in the students' seminars.
Critics, however, aren't so
silent. In July, Lou Kilzner of the Denver Rocky Mountain News wrote
a multi-part investigation of the schools within the WWASP program.
He spoke with Margaret Singer, a psychologist who specializes in
mind control. She has documented the history of these types of
programs which trace their origins back to foundations of Communist
China as a tool to convert citizens to their beliefs. The techniques
were believed to have been used on American prisoners during the
In America, the technique
drifted into use in personal motivational seminars beginning in the
‘60s. In these seminars, the facilitator uses what critics define as
“coercive influence” to create a sort of group-think mentality.
Conformity is enforced through a series of verbal rewards and
participants are expected to reveal their darkest personal secrets.
Those who don't conform or question the facilitator is faced with
withering criticism or what some say is verbal intimidation. As
Singer described it, the system creates an “us versus them”
mentality. Nonconforming participants are separated from the rest of
the group. The rest of the group then cooperates with the
facilitator in pressuring the defiant members by suggesting that
there is something wrong with them for failing to comply with the
rest of the group.
This is exactly the
experience that parents Karen E. Lile and Kendall Ross Bean
described in their account of attending one of the parent seminars.
After an experience they both found extremely abusive, the decided
to break the silence and post the details of their experience on the
web. Lile said the facilitator and other participants of the seminar
ganged up on her and tried to make her feel as though she was a
failure because she refused to give in to the facilitators
intimidation techniques. She said the facilitator told uncooperative
members that they disgusted him and that they were failures and told
them that they should trust those who said negative things about
they. She left the 3-day seminar in the middle of an exercise where
people were put into groups and barraged with negative statements by
others in the program.
These kinds of behavior
modification techniques have been used in cults, though school
operators and owners say these techniques are not intended to create
a cult. And many say the experience wasn't negative.
“I can only speak for my
experiences,” said Mary Walker, assistant academic coordinator for
Carolina Springs Academy. “I had a wonderful experience. It was kind
of eye-opening for me.” Staff members also often go through the
Vinnie, a 16-year-old
student in the program, also felt the seminars were very helpful to
his recovery. Vinnie had gotten involved in drugs and alcohol and
his bad temper had gotten him into a lot of bad fights and violent
“You get a lot of feedback,”
he said. “You learn things about yourself. [I learned] that it's not
like another person can get you mad. You choose to be mad.”
Students can refuse to
participate in the seminars. However, according to the school's
point system of earning privileges, a student can only make it
halfway through the program if they don't complete any of the TASKS
seminars. Davis said that as director she is allowed to enter and
leave the seminars as she chooses. If she sees any abusive behavior
she is allowed to stop the seminars. She said she hasn't felt the
need to do so, though she did once ask a facilitator to change
certain behaviors and the facilitator complied.
Even if the schools under
WWASP's umbrellas are not part of a cult, WWASP has a rather
cult-like mentality in dealing with criticism. Information kits sent
out in response to media requests include a cover letter dismissing
negative stories from the press as taking the word of a handful of
critics and not talking to enough of their happy parents. The letter
demands that any reporter put the story into “the proper
perspective” (in other words, their perspective) and brings up the
possibility of lawsuits against media outlets that have reported
negative things about the schools. In addition to the Denver Rocky
Mountain News, Dateline NBC, Forbes magazine and People have done
reports on problems with the schools. Some parents have filed suit
against People claiming that their story made them look like
negligent parents for sending their child to one of the schools.
The letter also dismisses
critics of the programs as being influenced by “radical child
advocacy agendas” or as parents in bitter divorce struggles using
the school as a point in their personal disagreements. It also
speaks directly to Lile and Bean's experiences (though not by name)
by saying they have “major insecurities” and are “on a crusade.”
The kit includes a survey
that is intended to prove that parents are happy with the school.
Reporters are told, “This type of perspective needs to be reported.”
The study reports that of 99 families surveyed, 96.5 percent would
recommend it to other parents and 98.7 percent say they made a good
choice. However, the survey was put together and sent out by WWASP
and contains no indication that a third party or independent polling
group has monitored it to make certain the results were accurate.
Working the Programs
Here in Columbia, Ann Carol
Price and R. Grant Price operate The Price Group, a consulting
organization that helps parents choose specialty schools for their
children. About half of the 250 children they deal with per year are
troubled children who are having difficulty in a traditional school
Ann and Grant are a
mother-son team with a lot of experience dealing with “therapeutic
schools”--schools that work with emotionally-troubled students.
Grant himself is a product of a therapeutic school.
Although the two of them
deal with around 50 different therapeutic schools, neither have them
have recommended any of WWASP's schools for the past four years.
Neither Ann nor Grant could detail any specifics about why they
hadn't recommended the schools, but both said they choose schools
they've had the best professional experiences with and they felt
were the best matches for the children.
At The Price Group, a team
of four psychologists work with parents and children for a week,
interviewing and analyzing them before a school is recommended. This
pre-screening is important, they say, because, though many children
seem to be making the same bad choices--drugs, violence, sex--each
child has his or her own reasons and the right school is the one
that can address those reasons.
“All these phone calls are
remarkably similar,” said Grant. “But you discover a lot of
differences through the understanding of the child. You have to
determine who [each school] serves best.” Sometimes The Price Group
even determines that a therapeutic school isn't necessarily the best
choice for the child.
According to Davis, the
WWASP schools don't have a very in-depth pre-screening process. In
fact, she said before she took over as director children were
accepted at Carolina Springs Academy with few questions asked. Only
when they got there were the child's problems explored, and that
caused some early problems at the school. Because the school's model
is not designed to provide psychiatric or medical services, some of
the children with more intense emotional problems needed to be moved
to other schools with a licensed staff.
Now Davis says she calls
parents who send in applications to put their students in Carolina
Springs Academy. Based on her conversation with the parents, she may
recommend one of the other schools of the WWASP program.
Grant said that though he
hasn't done a lot of analysis of the WWASP schools, he has heard
from other professionals in the field who have concerns about
WWASP's system of marketing the program. Two organizations exist,
titled Adolescent Services Inc. and Teen Help, that offer parents
assistance in getting troubled children into specialty programs.
Although seemingly independent, the two programs recommend primarily
the schools under WWASP's umbrella. In addition parents in the
program get tuition discounts (Carolina Springs Academy costs $2,690
per month) if they convince other parents to send children to the
program and parents get discounts if they send more than one of
their children to the schools. Lichfield has made television
appearances on places such as The Jenny Jones Show to promote the
school and they allow media interviews of the children.
“It's a little bit
unorthodox that they allow the interviews,” Grant said. “Parents
recruiting parents--It's not illegal, but it skirts the edges of a
‘safe harbor' system. We operate independently of the schools and
don't receive payment from any of them for recommendations.”
Ann added that though they
receive visits from representatives from therapeutic schools across
the country in order to discuss their school with them, she hadn't
been contacted or approached by Carolina Springs Academy. At
Carolina Springs Academy, a board in Davis' office detailed six
incoming students. All were recommended to the school by either Teen
Help or Adolescent Services Inc.
Since Davis has taken over
as director of Carolina Springs Academy, she said she's been working
to make the school more cooperative with the state and also make
connections with the surrounding community. A source at DHEC did say
that the school has been much more approachable and cooperative
since Davis took over.
Davis dismissed the staff
member who forced the boy who had run away to stay up walking all
night and put him in isolation for a week. She said she also
dismissed a staff member who had touched a child in an angry manner
(though she said the staff member didn't actually strike the child).
She said she runs the school as a more “open” facility and allows
people in the community to come and tour the school so they can see
that it's not a prison and the children aren't being abused.
The school has officially
also received accreditation from Northwest and Davis said she's
working on getting the school accredited with a program in this
region. A school nearby the facility refused to accept credits from
courses of a student in Carolina Springs Academy.
Davis places a lot of the
blame for the initial problems with the school on Byars, and oddly,
it doesn't bother him. Despite being forced out as director of the
school, he feels the decision was made so that the school could
remain in operation and doesn't take it personally, even though he
says the school still owes him back pay.
“I did nothing that I wasn't
told to do by Narvin Lichfield,” he said. Interestingly, he's still
defiant about complying with DSS regulations.
“Because I was standing up
to DSS and basically not doing as they asked me to do, somebody had
to be a sacrificial lamb,” he said. “We came into South Carolina
with the understanding that we didn't need to be licensed. They
started flexing their muscles and said we're going to do what they
Carolina Springs Academy
also has an ally in Charleston Senator Ernest Passailaigue.
Passailaigue's son is currently in one of the other WWASP schools.
When he heard of Carolina Springs Academy's difficulties he
contacted DSS Director Elizabeth Patterson to explain how the school
had helped his son. He said, however, he was not attempting to
influence DSS's decision to license the school.
For parents who may be
considering putting their child in a therapeutic school, Ann and
Grant recommended looking for a third party independent of a
particular institution that will look over a variety different
schools. Of, course, because that's what they do for a living, Grant
added the rejoinder that they don't necessarily have to come to
them, but they should look very carefully before choosing a program.
“If you end up in the wrong
program, it could take you six months to figure it out, your kid
will have another failure under his or her belt and you'll be out a
lot of money,” Grant said.