Monday, May 14, 2012

Disowned after a stay at Shortridge Academy

Many families know already. Months of confinement are no fix for domestic rooted problems.

The Reddit message board did just publish yet another story, which we have chosen to re-publish in full.

All rights belong to the original author.

First introduction by Reddit:
I started /r/troubledteens to save kids from abuse at "troubled teen" facilities. It is common for places like this to tell parents to disown their own child, this kid is being thrown to the streets with barely any resources. I'll let you read his story, I've put more info about his upcoming situation & WAYS TO HELP HERE. For people who have never heard of the 'troubled teen' industry and why he needs help, look here.
tldr: Because his parents were displeased with his grades, C's, a teen was sent to an oppressive facility, Shortridge Academy of New Hampshire. Shortridge is run by the former staff of other programs which have been closed down for abusing children (WWASP, CEDU, Synanon). After 20 months of witnessing the self-abuse and suicide attempts of his peers, who didn't receive proper assistance, he works to create change in the program; in turn, the program convinces his parents to disown him. Now, at age 18, he is being tossed to the streets with with no money, no support, and no destination. Here is his story...

Hello, reddit. Thank you for reading this. It’s a long story, I know, but there are so many twists, I couldn’t make it shorter. And speaking of twists, I’m going to start at the mid-point.

It’s a cloudy night, early November. Unseasonably warm. I’m eighteen years old, and scared, elated, excited, a little guilty. I’m standing in a highway rest stop in rural New Hampshire as the sun sets in a gray sky. I’m standing next to a man I’ve grown close to, a man who represents what I’ve been fighting for fifteen months. We’re looking for the white car.

This car isn’t just some white car. This car is my salvation. As I search the lot for a Massachusetts plate, the man says, “Y’know, Jimmy, this doesn’t have to happen. We can still go back. I know how you feel about Shortridge, but we don’t abuse kids. You know that.”

“No,” I tell him. “I’m leaving."

No one in the real world calls me Jimmy. It was always James, back when things were real. Back when all I worried about was my brother’s growing drug problem, my grades, and how I could not get into a fight with my parents that night. I thought all that sucked. Looking back I realize I didn’t know what suck was. I didn’t know until I began my “therapeutic journey.”

I should’ve ran two years ago, sent away. I’m no better now than I was then: homeless, with $10 in my pocket and some clothes in a bin.

He asks me, since he owes me a dinner, where I want to go. I tell him I don’t know. I haven’t been to a restaurant in a while. I haven’t been anywhere in a while. So we go to Uno’s, talk about anything besides what we’re doing. When we get back to the rest stop, the white car’s still not there.

So we wait. And wait. And wait. A long time later, a phone call. Not on my phone; the last time I touched a cell phone was over a year ago. The man answers his phone, says hello, then hands it to me. It’s my best friend. I haven’t seen him in over a year and a half.

Are you okay? he asks. Do you trust this man? he asks. Where are you? he asks. I tell him where we are. I tell him what the car looks like. I tell him I’ll see him soon.

I don’t tell him how it feels to be free. I don’t tell him I don’t know if I’m safe--that I half-trust the man, but I don’t trust his bosses. I don’t tell him how it feels to know homelessness is better than this nightmare. I don’t tell him anything, because I’m scared. Scared of where I’ve been for the past fifteen months.

He knows almost nothing about my situation, but he’s driving eight hours to come get me.

The man tries again: “Jimmy, just call him and say you changed your mind. He’ll understand. I know what it’s like to be homeless. You don’t want this.”

I ignore him. I don’t want to be homeless, but I don’t have other options. I don’t want to hear about what I’m walking into. If I do, I might agree with him. I might head back for another eight months of hell.

As the sun passes below the horizon, the car shows up. I recognize my friend before he sees me. I’m standing with a blue box with a stranger’s name on it, wearing clothes that fit me two years ago. Everything I own is in that box. Once again, I realize that I won. Once again, I realize that I’m fucked. I note the paradox as my best friend drive up.

After all this time, he looks the same. But I don’t. I’ve gained some weight, grown taller. Longer hair. New glasses. Hopefully, less acne. No wonder he didn’t recognize me at first. And over that echo of eighteen months ago, I hear the first words from him, this friend who’s become a brother to me, in 18 months: “Hey.”

“Hey,” I tell him.

The man approaches and introduces himself. My friend looks at him, says hello, and asks me where I want to put my stuff. I put it in the back seat.

The man tries one last time: “Jimmy, come on. This is stupid.”

“No, I tell him. “This is it.” “Well, I wish you the best of luck. You can always come back, if it doesn’t work out.”

“You should know me by now. I don’t plan on it. I won’t say it’s been good, but you’re one of the few good people there. Thanks for dinner.”

I get in the front seat, and my friend and I drive away.

And that is how I almost gained my freedom.

Three days later I’m sitting in a cafe, meeting with the man and one of his bosses. The boss says, “How’s the real world? Didn’t treat you the way you thought it would, did it?”

And my mother’s there, not saying a word. Her job is to drive me to the nearest homeless shelter, if the man and his boss say no. I tell him, “Yeah, it didn’t work out.” We discuss terms, the “agreements” behind my return to Shortridge Academy. We don’t discuss how I’ll explain to everyone at the school how, in three days, I went from prisoner to free man and back. And how this time, I have to be perfect. How one fuck up will put me on the streets of Portsmouth, Maine. That part doesn’t matter.

Now that I have your attention, let’s bring it back. Back to the day that I got in my car and headed to some place called Summit Achievement. At the time, I didn’t know much. I had only heard it was a two week testing place for Shortridge Academy. Within a few days, I would know more than I ever wanted to. Like the man said, Shortridge isn’t physically abusive. But you can abuse parts of a person other than their body.

I think I was sent away on August 21st, 2010. I don't exactly know. I never have visits, so time blurs together. Every day the same, you know? I was sent away for bad grades. At least, bad by my parents standards. Almost all Cs. I'd failed French (by one point!), and I took summer school for Algebra II. I probably could have done better. I'm not going to blame my grades on ADD. I will, however, blame half of it on my parents. They weren't great parents. But still, the other half was on me.

I was not escorted to Summit Achievement, which turned out to be a wilderness program. I had heard about these programs before and knew that if I didn't go with my parents, something worse would happen. Summit was in Stowe, Maine, and I don’t have much to say about it. It wasn't bad, and they were more ethical than other programs. I would never send a kid there, but still, it wasn't that bad. I had some fun, sometimes is sucked hiking eight miles in the rain, but I didn’t really mind it. The problem was they had a one program fits all mentality. So it was ineffective, but not really that bad. Unfortunately, my "therapeutic journey" didn't end there.

After my last day at Summit—and after a fight with my parents in the hotel room--I was sent to Shortridge the next day, as planned. My parents tried to get a police escort, but that didn’t work out. The police said no, I think. My parents had left the room to call them. Either way, I went "willingly.” The only reason I didn't run is because I knew I'd end up at Swift River if I did. I was searched, but not very well. I didn't sneak anything in, but they did tell me that cameras weren’t allowed, nor were any electronics. Now, we're allowed iPods. Back then, we weren't.

Almost as soon as I got there, Amy Fuller, a former CEDU counselor, asked me in a contemptuous manner if I was going to "fight the program.” I told her no. I wasn't sure then if I would or not, but my answer changed to a yes pretty quickly.

Shortridge is staffed by the former employees of schools that were shut down for abusing kids-- places like CEDU, WWASP, and Synanon--but Shortridge isn’t as heavy-handed as its predecessors. Because they're smarter. A lot smarter. While they can "restrain" anyone, anytime they deem it necessary, they don’t use physical punishments. So there’s no provable abuse. When the other schools close down, Shortridge stays operational. Any staff member that narrowly escapes a lawsuit just sets up shop here. There’s no real coercion at Shortridge, no outright pressure to conform to the program. It’s the monotony, combined with the restrictive rules, the lack of privacy, and the fact that we can't go home until Phase 2, that gets kids over to their side real quick.

On my first day, I was also told that I needed a haircut. Above the ears and out of the eyes. I got one, but its almost back to how it was now. No body piercings or hair dyeing is allowed on visits. Sometimes it happens, but it’s made fun of and shamed, by students and staff alike. When we did something wrong—like, if we run away, do drugs on campus, be disrespectful to an upper staff—we had “restrictions,” which were punishments for people who deserved stronger punishment than work projects, which were two hours’ worth of labor outside. The worst part of restrictions was when they took your computer away. When they did that, they were taking away your only connection to the outside world.

Mainly, restrictions involved sitting at a desk. That was the core part. The specifics could change, like whether you were allowed to talk to anyone you wanted, or only staff (?). But always, you had to ask to get up, even to go to the bathroom. You had to do work projects all weekend, when you weren’t sitting at your desk.You always had to do one share of the jobs at every meal, instead of being in the rotating schedule. When you were at your desk, you would do writing assignments constantly. They were about things such as why did you do what you did, and what you can do to not do it again, and there was no limit to how many you could be assigned. Anyone who felt like it, students or staff, could give you writing assignments whenever they wanted. Restrictions could last from two weeks to two months.

You never know if you’re going to get restrictions, though. I was assaulted by a student for the ipod I snuck in after one of my few visits. He beat me up for it, and got off with no consequences. Upper phase students can pretty much do whatever they want and not get in real trouble. So long as they don’t do anything really bad in front of a large group of students, they can get away with a lot. Luckily, my only consequence was that my ipod was sent back to my parents. I wasn't shamed in group like most people would have been, and I don't know why. This school doesn't help anyone. Going up to the main part of the school to be monitored all day, while I do nothing, is just as bad as walking into the dorm bathroom and seeing a kid with crushed pills coming out of his nose, or someone with new scars on their arms. Almost all the girls are bulimic. I watched a fourteen year old girl cut herself daily, and saw staff do nothing but bring her to the nurse every day. They never even tried to speak to her. I've seen three suicide attempts in the last year. One kid tried hanging himself off the top of my bunk, and I had to pull the noose off of him. Three days later, he disappeared.

It feels weird to know someone outside of here will be reading this, because it says so much, but it’s taken for granted in here…a guy who just left had been in programs since he was TWELVE. He left at nineteen. Seven years of shit like that, no wonder he was a little crazy. He was really rich, though, so his life will turn out almost alright. But still.

You can leave when your 18; no one is being held there. The problem is that they pressure parents, so that parents almost always do what mine are doing, which is disowning me. Lots of kids in here have large inheritances they don't want to miss, so they stay. They stay until Shortridge and their parents say they can leave.

That’s not my family, though. My family doesn’t have a lot of money. We live in Western Massachusetts on marshy land that you can’t really build on or farm or anything. We have a couple of beat-up old cars, one cat, and a tractor. My parents are paying for Shortridge with a combination of my college money, loans, and the social security funds I get from my mother’s death. They don’t have much, but they do have their home. I won’t be able to stay there when I leave, though. They’ve made it clear that I can’t come home.

When I learned that, I realized something: I’ve got nothing to lose. So I’ve been quietly organizing a sort of revolt. I’ve been trying to fight back against this place.

Don Vardell, who is now the head of Shortridge, is planning to auction off some of the students' art. The proceeds will go to a fund that provides money for less-rich families to send their kids away. I'm trying to boycott it, but it’s hard to stay under the radar. They'd put me right out on the street, if they learned what I was doing.

But really, it’s not just me. Other kids are participating in the effort--to make it known what goes on in Shortridge—and they all do it knowing that they will not get to go home. Not until either we win, or Shortridge closes. They know they'll never get contact with the "real world," as we call it. They know they risk losing all their rights, they risk getting woken up at 2 AM to be escorted to another school/RTC/Wilderness. And yet they stick with it. They keep on raising awareness, coming up with ideas, and continuing an anti-Shortridge culture. It all we can do, but it helps to have a safe group of people where we don’t have to pretend to like Shortridge.

We know that most likely, no one will ever know what’s happening here. But still, it’s a cool feeling, let me tell you. To be leading a group that’s doing what’s right. But because it’s not just me, I’m terrified about whether I’m right about one thing. The staff who’s supposed to read our email? He better be as cool as I think he is.

I know this isn't the worst school. Not even close. The people who want to help might rather work with a kid who’s in Cross Creek or Monarch or Aspen, where they sent this one kid just the other day. But I figure that ending programs that hurt teens has to start somewhere, and the easiest to topple might be Shortridge. And if we can do that, we'll stop Don Vardell, who was Executive Director of Island View, Casa by the Sea, Academy at Swift River, and EXCEL Academy.

I’m sorry I don’t have a coherent story to tell, and I'm sorry about how long this is. I've just been waiting so long for this—for the opportunity to reach people on the outside who care—that I can barely type.

Once I get out, I'm very interested in joining the groups that are trying to shut down the therapeutic boarding school industry. And I definitely will help anyone out. Now that I know how it feels, I could never let this happen to anyone else. I'm going to try as hard as I can to bring these places down. And if anybody wants info that I can give, I’m happy to share it. I don't think it will hurt me in any way, and Shortridge is probably just going to pretend I never existed once I get out, anyway.

As for me, now, I’m getting sent out of Shortridge on May 17. I. It’s scary, because when I get out, I’ll have $20, maybe a bus ticket, and nowhere to go. It looks like I might get into JobCorps in June, but until then, I’ll be homeless.

But I can say that some weird good has come from this. I've picked up some great conflict resolution and empathic skills at Shortridge. I've always been a naturally sympathetic person, but Shortridge gave me a way to better express it. So if I can do anything to help anyone, please have them contact me. It can be one way for me to start giving back to the anti-troubled teen industry community, after I've been given so much help.

After being sent away, and experiencing what I did at Shortridge, I was wondering where I'd find good in the world. I thought it was just me and a small, rare group of other people. When I first entered Shortridge, I felt completely alone. That's different now, and it’s really important to me. The people I’ve found online— /r/troubledteens and OpLiberation and the other groups—have become like a surrogate family. Now, my faith has been restored.



  1. I worked at that school. I don't know what I could do that could possible help but feel free to contact me. I always felt indifference about somethings that happeded during my time there.

  2. Where is the link on how to help Jimmy?

  3. i went to shortridge also and i can easily say that even though they don't physically restrain you, everything they do and/or say to you, fucks with your head. i was one out of six girls there and my third night, there was a huge riot in the house. that place is out of control and i only spent four months there, thanks to running away my first home visit. PARENTS: sending us away a billion times wont "fix" us, it'll only validate our need to be home with the people we love. we will do absolutely ANYTHING for the things we truly believe in, no matter if it means sleeping under a bridge at 5 in the morning in charlotte NC just to get the point across that i want to stay home for good. there was no way i was going back to that hell hole. i can't even explain my hatred for that place and the people who run that place. My heart goes out to all the kids sent away <3

  4. I went to that school. I was in peer group 1 and this post is INSANE... This place helped save my life, I have never felt so loved and taken care of. Yeah moments of it sucked, I was forced out of my comfort zone and was totally terrified and people saw through my BS which I was spewing at everyone. This sounds like a bunch of people who didn't do the work they needed to do on themselves and in turn blame the school.

  5. I went to Shortridge too, graduated the program in December 2010 and then highschool in March 2011. I went to Summit as well. We must've known each other! Don't worry, that place is fucking imploding.

  6. I currently am sitting on the porch of Shortridge Academy. I read this piece of work and I agree fully with everything. When I graduate I plan to write a paper similar to this. Thank you for sharing your view and reminding the few "defiant" kids here that people on the outside care.

    1. Why aren't students allowed to see or talk to grandparents? This strikes me as abusive and purposefully isolating. Breaking generational bonds is cause for me to worry about the school and its philosophy.

  7. Why doesn't the school permit students to see or talk to grandparents? Severing generational bonds seems abusive.

  8. Shortridge Academy helped me realize that I was not alone and why I misbehaved as an adolescent ; ultimately it helped me be successful, happy, and an asset to society. I also wouldn't have gotten into college if it weren't for SA.

  9. I had a very positive experience at Shortridge. I was there in 2012 with this student and couldn’t disagree more with what has been said. Alot of students who attend try everything to leave and the result is a lot of misinformation being posted online. Don’t let this turn you away from considering this great program.


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