21st: Schools of hard knocks

"Lock ups" for "defiant teens" use questionable tactics -- on the Web and off.

Published January 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Sara Pursley knew something was amiss. She had volunteered to create a Web site for "An American Gulag," a book that investigates (and denounces) the fast-growing phenomenon of private boarding schools for "defiant teens": schools that specialize in breaking the will of "hard core, acting-out" teenagers; schools where punitive "behavior modification" is the norm; schools that isolate teens from their families and friends; schools that require parents to authorize the use of mace and pepper spray on their own children.

For Pursley, the issue was personal: Her own brother had narrowly avoided being consigned to one such school.

One of Pursley's goals was to get the "Gulag" Web site highly ranked by the Net's big search engines. The Internet has become a major source of information for desperate upper-middle-class parents locked in battle with their troubled teenagers. Pursley wanted to make the full text of "An American Gulag" easily available on the Web, to counter the deluge of slick marketing propaganda for the schools -- referred to by their advocates as "emotional growth schools" and by their opponents (including some graduates) as "lockups."

The best way to attract a search engine's attention is to label your Web page with appropriate keywords. But when Pursley began researching to see what kind of results she could generate using specific keywords at search engines like Lycos and Alta Vista, she discovered something peculiar: No matter what word or phrase she tried, the same Web site kept popping up. And not just once, but multiple times -- at Lycos, for example, eight of the top 10 hits returned for the words "behavior modification" and "teens" were identical pages belonging to an outfit called Adolescent Services International. To her dismay, Pursley soon found hundreds of cloned Adolescent Services pages.

To the naked eye the pages all looked exactly alike. But a closer examination of the pages' HTML code revealed a devious techno-trick: Many of the pages contained batches of hundreds of slightly different keywords. They weren't properly labeled (keywords normally appear as part of hidden "metatags"). They were Trojan-horse keywords -- invisible to the normal Web surfer, but laying in wait to ensnare the search engines.

Pursley was furious -- and not just because the sneaky code created such a profusion of "decoy pages." Keyword spamming, referred to in the search engine trade as "spamdexing," is common on the Web. It isn't illegal, although the practice is widely regarded as horrid netiquette. Pursley's problem was with the perpetrator. She had encountered Adolescent Services before.

In her opinion, this purportedly neutral referral site directing parents to "schools for defiant teens" was actually one of the worst desperadoes in a bad bunch. Adolescent Services and its related organization Teen Help marketed a single set of closely affiliated schools located in regions as far flung as Western Samoa and Jamaica. These schools required parents to sign contracts allowing the use of mace, handcuffs and pepper spray on students; employed euphemistically named "escort services" to forcibly transport teenagers from their homes in the middle of the night; and strictly limited all contact between students and their families and friends.

"The spamdexing is obviously a flagrant violation of all search engine guidelines," says Pursley. "But it is more than that. The whole site is a violation of advertising ethics. For me it's a lot more relevant than some abstract cyber-issue, because it affects real people's lives: It misleads people about what options are available for their kids. These schools are absolutely unethical and manipulative from beginning to end -- from search engine rules to how they actually treat the kids."

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"Defiant teen" schools became a national story in late January, when an Oakland, Calif., teenager named David Van Blarigan appealed to legal authorities to get him out of a school in Jamaica named Tranquility Bay. Last November, Van Blarigan had been woken up just past midnight by "two burly men," whisked away to the Brightway Adolescent Hospital in southern Utah for "evaluation" and then taken to Tranquility Bay. But he managed to call a neighbor while in transit at the Jamaican airport, and the neighbor alerted the Oakland district attorney's office, which promptly filed a civil petition seeking Van Blarigan's return. According to the petition, as reported in the New York Times, children with whom Van Blarigan had been placed at Brightway who talked back to staff were knocked to the ground, and "if a minor child became too unruly, a hypodermic needle would be used."

The Van Blarigan case polarized public opinion regarding these schools. While many parents might blanch at the prospect of sending their children to schools where the practice of handcuffing students is approved official policy, there is also no shortage of parents willing to testify that such schools have saved their children's lives. Indeed, when Alameda County Judge Ken Kawaichi dismissed the petition, a crowd of some 100 parents broke out into cheers in the courtroom.

Van Blarigan remains in Jamaica, locked behind a high chain-link fence -- even though his own parents concede that the teenager didn't drink or do drugs and had no criminal record. But his case set off a chain of events that has begun to expose just how these schools are administered -- and to reveal what critics call their pattern of misrepresentation and unethical marketing practices.

The author of "An American Gulag" is Alexia Parks, president of VoteLink, a company that conducts online polling and advocates incorporating online technology in the democratic process. "Gulag" is a sideline -- her account of her own anguished attempts to locate her "disappeared" niece, who had been cut off from the rest of the family after being sent to a fundamentalist school in Missouri by Parks' sister.

But Parks had no publisher for her book, and had actually just finished printing it out when she heard the news that Oakland Deputy District Attorney Bob Hutchins was bringing the Van Blarigan affair to court. As soon as she learned of the case, says Parks, she called Hutchins and faxed him relevant parts of her research. Hutchins, in return, began referring national media inquiries to Parks, transforming her into an instant media star. Her sudden high profile attracted the attention of Bennett Haselton, a teen activist already renowned in Internet circles for his battles against the censorship agendas implicit in software programs designed to block access to "objectionable" Web pages. Haselton spent a weekend scanning "Gulag" and uploading it online.

Pursley joined the crusade next. A Web developer who earns her living creating high-end "transactional sites" for Wall Street financial corporations, she noticed an article in Time Magazine in which Parks referred to her "online book." After inspecting it, she immediately offered to upgrade the "Gulag" Web site, clean up the book's ungainly text formatting and register the site with search engines.

Her discovery of the spamdexing by Adolescent Services International touched a nerve. Six months earlier she had been researching care options for her younger brother, who had been having trouble at school. Like many other concerned relatives and parents, she turned to the Web for help, and soon found the Adolescent Services site. At first glance, it looked promising, offering a wealth of pointers to "schools for defiant teens," "acute care hospitals," "residential treatment centers" and "youth escort services." There was even a brightly colored map of the United States -- click on any state, suggested the site, to receive recommendations for an appropriate school or hospital near you.

But no matter what state Pursley clicked on, the page spat out recommendations for the same four schools: Cross Creek Manor in southern Utah, Spring Creek Lodge in Montana, Paradise Cove in Western Samoa and Tranquility Bay in Jamaica (Van Blarigan's destination). Only one hospital was mentioned, the Brightway Adolescent Hospital, also in southern Utah (Van Blarigan's way station). The lack of options "offended" Pursley, she says -- although at the time she didn't realize just how closely the schools, hospital and Adolescent Services were all linked.

The Adolescent Services site presents itself as a "service" center for parents dealing with "teens in crisis," with the strong implication that it is unaffiliated with particular schools. But Adolescent Services was founded last year by a man named Narvin Lichfield, who for the previous seven years had been the managing director of Teen Help, the marketing wing of the World Wide Association of Specialty Schools. Who are these "specialty schools"? Precisely those five institutions that the Adolescent Services Web site recommended. Teen Help, in turn, had been founded by Lichfield's brother, Bob Lichfield, who had also started both Cross Creek Manor and Paradise Cove. In fact, a network of consulting, billing and other marketing operations all based in the same building in St. George, Utah handles most of the administrative tasks for all the schools.

Even strong advocates of the "tough love" approach employed at schools like Cross Creek Manor and Tranquility Bay are leery of the opaque organizational structure of the World Wide Association of Specialty Schools. Tom Croke, who runs his own Web site offering referral services, has visited Paradise Cove, and even referred a student there. But he still questions the lack of accountability inherent in the set-up.

"It has been stated to me over and over again by Narvin Lichfield and others associated with the group that the reason for the convoluted ownership situation is to shield Bob Lichfield from liability," wrote Croke in a post on a bulletin board he maintains on his Web site "... I know of no other treatment organization which has gone to the great lengths this group has to obfuscate the question of who is legally and morally responsible for the welfare of the children -- whether in their stateside facilities or their offshore facilities -- and professionally I cannot support that kind of thing. I stress, however, that I have no knowledge of anyone being harmed by them."

"I have serious concerns about Teen Help," wrote Croke in another posting, "and now [about] a new organization widely positioning itself on the Internet, sometimes appearing as if they were neutral referral agencies when they have a strong financial interest in maximizing intake at the original Lichfield programs ... I don't object to marketing and advertising; I object strenuously to advertising disguised as neutral advice."

In an interview, Croke said he has no problem with the educational approach taken at Paradise Cove and Tranquility Bay. He thinks the decision in the Van Blarigan case was correct, and that such schools are an appropriate answer to the problems posed by "hard core acting-out teens." But he stood by the words he posted on his site.

The ethical quagmire isn't limited to Web site marketing practices or bizarre corporate shell games, says Thomas Burton, a Pleasanton, Calif., lawyer who is about to bring a suit against Cross Creek Manor on behalf of parents alleging their child had been abused there. The language of the contracts that parents sign is also problematic.

"Typically the contracts are completely misrepresentative," says Burton, who has successfully won damages from several similar "boot-camp style" organizations. "When the parent signs up a child, the child basically has no more rights at all. And if anything goes wrong, the parent will be responsible, and they usually have no idea."

A copy of a contract for Tranquility Bay dated last March includes one clause in which "The Sponsor agrees to hold harmless and release the Program, and its staff, from all liability for any injuries, illnesses, or other damages occurring to the student during enrollment in the Program whether on or off the property." Another clause reads, "When it becomes necessary, in the sole discretion of the Program, to restrain a Student, the Sponsors authorize the Program to use pepper spray (or electrical disabler, mace, mechanical restraints, handcuffs) as means to or alternative to avoid, whenever possible, the potential for injuries, complications, and/or altercations that can arise from the Program staff having to physically restrain or wrestle with the student in order to subdue the student." And on the last page of the 12-page contract, parents are also required to give Tranquility Bay the right to "monitor all outgoing and incoming mail."

Blanket liability waivers rarely stand up in court, says Burton, but parents don't usually realize this, and are thus often unwilling to challenge the schools in court should something untoward happen.

Pursley charges that the pattern of misrepresentation and unethical behavior extends to every level of the Teen Help/Adolescent Services organization. Neither Narvin Lichfield nor Jean Schulter, the current director of Teen Help, returned repeated phone calls seeking comment on their organization's practices. But on the subject of their spamdexing tactics, at least, their own Web site is remarkably forthright.

The site includes a page that tries to sell schools on the benefits of its directory -- although no schools other than those affiliated with Teen Help seem to have bought the pitch. The page reads, in part: "We also have an exclusive technology that ensures top listing of ASI on most major search engines. These search engines are used by parents and others to find your needed services. This technology is applied on a constant, 24-hour basis. The technology is cost prohibitive and impractical to be done on an individual basis. These unique services are provided at a fraction of the cost that you would incur if you advertised through other media that are known to bring about similar results."

On their own, spamdexing outbreaks are hardly earthshaking. There's a constant give-and-take on the Web between spamdexers and the operators of search engines. Primitive early spamdexing attempts included such broad-based attacks as repeating the word "porn" on the bottom of a Web sex page a few hundred times, or coding keywords in the same color as the background of a page -- so surfers wouldn't see them but colorblind search engines would find them immediately. As fast as the spamdexers come up with these schemes, the search engines beef up their algorithms in defense. The HotBot search engine already has filters in place that managed to catch the Adolescent Services tricks, and refused to register any of the decoy pages.

That spy-versus-spy battle will never be resolved one way or another. But to online activists like Parks, it's not the obscure trivialities of geek warfare that are important -- what matters is whether we use the Internet to enlighten or deceive.

Parks feels she has struck back, by using the Net to broadcast useful information even as misleading information is multiplying. Getting her book online has been a cathartic experience.

"To me the value was enormous," says Parks. "I've already saved lives, if nothing else. I've already had parents e-mail me with horrendous stories. They are turning to me as guide, asking, how can we help? Putting it up has also made it accessible to the news media."

In fact, Parks has received so much media attention that the William Morris agency recently agreed to represent her in the negotiation of potential book- and movie-of-the-week deals. But as part of the agreement the agency asked her to take the bulk of her book offline, at least for as long as it takes to secure contracts. She agreed, but promised that as soon as the negotiations are over, she'll get the full text back online and carry on her fight.

"They are subverting free speech," says Parks. "They are subverting access to information."

And if an organization will do that, she wonders, then what will they do to your kids?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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