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World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools

During the past 15 years, the World Wide Association (WWA) of Specialty Programs and Schools, a network of Utah-based “tough love” boarding schools for troubled youths, has closed nearly two dozen programs amidst claims of child abuse. A boy, now 18, whose family sent him to Horizon Academy, one of the associated schools, tells how instead of receiving promised mental-health counseling, he was brutalized. A former student at another school reported that after he violated a rule prohibiting the passing of gas without permission, staff members hogtied him with duct tape and rope and left him for 8 to 12 hours. Other former students, parents, and ex-staff members tell of a rigid system of discipline at the schools, delivered in typically locked compounds, often in remote areas, where the staff limits students’ basic activities such as speaking, using the bathroom, walking freely between rooms, taking showers, and communicating with parents. Behavior-modification programs for troubled teenagers have proliferated in the United States because state and federal laws allow far greater latitude to private schools than to public schools in how children can be treated. A 2011 Congressional bill to ban physical abuse and the withholding of food at schools such as the WWA’s died in committee, opposed by legislators reluctant to impose new federal standards on matters regulated by many states. WWA founder Robert Lichfield, who was a fundraiser for Mitt Romney in 2008, says he no longer actually owns any of the schools. However, he retains a financial interest in them through a web of limited-liability companies, consulting arrangements, and property ownership that receive up to a third of WWA’s revenues. Lichfield acknowledges that allegations of mistreatment of adolescents are common, but says they come from only “a few students who are angry and manipulative, with long histories of lying and dishonesty.” A lawsuit brought on behalf of 350 former students and their parents states, “In many instances, the abuse could be accurately described as torture of children.” In May, a WWA-related company paid a settlement of $3 million, without admitting liability—contracts typically require parents to release the schools from legal liability—in the case of a 16-year-old girl who hanged herself following physical punishment. (The New York Times, 7/23/13) [IT 5.1 2014]

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