Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sarah at Midwest Academy (from

This testimony was given on the webpage Safe Teen School by the student Sarah. All rights goes to the original author.

I am a former student of Midwest Academy in Keokuk, Iowa. My stay there was from February 28th, 2012 to May 5th, 2013--a little over 14 months. This stay was not at all pleasant. I was living with a male friend at my time right before attending MWA. My mother was aware of this and then lied to me about her acceptance and support of it. At 8 a.m., February 25th, 2 county police officers came and took me from my friend’s house. I was then put into a short term mental evaluation center and, after three days of observation, the doctor called me “precious,” declared me mentally stable and in no need of medication or in-patient treatment. I went into the transition room and, instead of my mother waiting to pick me up, a tall man, Ben Trane, and his wife stood waiting for me. My mother was outside the door. I was informed by Ben that he was there to take me to Midwest Academy boarding school. Although I was being compliant, he still insisted on holding my arm as we walked out of the ward. After a sharp jab in his ribcage from my elbow, he settled for taking my shoes. I was then put into the backseat of a small car, with Ben sitting in the back with me. His wife was in the front passenger seat and a man whom I did not know from Las Vegas was driving. A five hour car ride to Midwest ensued. We made a stop at a gas station for food. Ben came back to the car with burgers, meat lovers pizza, and chicken strips. I was vegetarian. No one bothered to ask me of my food preferences. Throughout my entire stay at the program, I was forced to eat meat. Otherwise, I would be stuck with smaller food portions, usually consisting of just rice and veggies.

Upon arrival at MWA, I was escorted out of the car and through hallways into the O.S.S. (Out of School Suspension)/intake office. Waiting inside there were two upper level students, admin Kathy Rose, Shasta Hiedbreder, James Paulus, and a shift leader. I was told to sit down, before I was given many papers to fill out and sign, including papers that asked me to sign away my rights to legal assistance and freedom of expression. When I calmly stated I would not be signing those, Kathy Rose shrugged and smiled while saying, “It really doesn’t matter. Your parents have already signed all these papers for you.” They then forced me to remove all of my jewelry and locked me in O.S.S., which is a little white box with a metal door and wooden walls. I was actually picked up by 4 male staff, had my arm twisted behind my back, and thrown into the room. I was forced to stay there overnight. I was released into the “family” (the group of all girls in the program) the morning after. While in O.S.S., however, all I received only a PBJ sandwich, pickles, raisins, and a cup of milk for each meal. Food outside O.S.S. wasn’t that premium either. A normal breakfast consisted of one scoop of stale cereal, one cup of milk, and an apple or orange. On good mornings we were given tasteless eggs and one greasy sausage link, sometimes three mini pancakes. A normal lunch/dinner consisted of the main dish of unidentifiable foods mixed together in a casserole, a side dish of cooked canned veggies, and a canned fruit. Dessert, condiments, and day old leftovers were a “privilege” for level 2 through 6.

My first impression of the MWA facility was melancholy. I could just feel the negative and depressive vibes coming off all of the girls. It was quiet, but in an unsettling way. I later learned the rules: head down, mouth shut. Otherwise you’ll never go anywhere.

Submission was the main goal of the “structure” of this program. Everything is taken from you, including your right to free speech, your possessions, and your self-worth. You are taught that you were the problem. Anything you did against the rules made you a bad person, who pulled everyone else down. Yet, with all these people
around you saying such things, convincing you that you were the scum of the earth for merely talking without permission, you were expected to be a leader. You were expected to keep a positive attitude, maintain maturity, and stay clam even when being treated unfairly. If you did not, you received “consequences”--little pieces of paper that made you lose anywhere from 5 to 50 points, or drop levels.

I went 6 months before reaching level 3, thus earning the privilege to call my parents. Before that, those in levels 1 and 2 were only given 2 hours to write a letter every Sunday. Your parents could write you twice a week, you could only reply once a week. This caused a lot of problems in communication for me and my parents. Being unable to hear the inflections in each other’s voices or read body language led to a lot of misinterpretations and a lot of jumping to conclusions.

I went 8 months before reaching level 4 status, a few weeks before my 17th birthday. I was able to go off-grounds with my parents for 2 days. However, as a level 4, you have to return to the facility to sleep. You are also unable to earn points on the days you are off grounds. My parents were not informed that they could see me for two days. They didn’t even know they were allowed to see me at all. No one gave them any information as I moved up in my program. The only reason I got 2 days was because my parents’ car broke down, so they stayed an extra day. On my off grounds, I was not able to go farther than a 60 mile radius of the school. I was not able to use any electronics, except for television. They even restricted what stations I was allowed to watch. When I arrived back at the facility, I had to do a “shake down” where I un-tucked everything, removed off my shoes and snap my bra to prove I wasn’t hiding anything. The shift leader went through my bags. This did not bother me. The shift leader that day was Ms. Angie, who I enjoyed. She took the time to talk to the kids, get to know them and why they acted the way they did. She let me do a half-assed shake down and, instead of searching my bags, jokingly asked, “No cigarettes? No drugs? Okay.” Because she knew me well enough to know I wouldn’t do that and took the time to learn my character.

I dropped levels twice in the program. Once for artwork in my private journal, which was supposed to be off limits for all staff and students, and once for going below points. However, around the same time I dropped for going under points, I was interrogated about things they found in my journals. I had written down incidents and odd things I had seen go on and mistreatment in my journals for when I went home, so that I would never forget, and so if an opportunity to get my story out came, I would have this information on hand. Sadly, I did not receive those journals back. I never reached a level higher than four.

I was blessed enough to have a wonderful family rep, Tonya Mayberry. Tonya was one of the younger staff, about twenty years of age or so. She understood my situation at home of control and emotional abuse, etc., because her mother was much the same to her. Tonya was also in the program, so she understood what it was like to be a student as well. I had and still do have a great deal of respect for this woman. She continues to support me even to this day. Tonya bent over backwards for me. She got me “special cased” (when admin or family reps do something out of the ordinary to help a kid. I received visits with my parents on doctor runs, free points, and extensions on deadlines.) Tonya was demoted from family rep to shift leader because of me and my father though. My father would scream and threaten her when I was not doing well, even though it wasn’t her fault. My father would complain to admin, who would then also blame Tonya. Tonya left Midwest Academy the same day I did. She truly stuck by my side the entire time. Even after I was switched to Devon, who was an admin, for a family rep, she still pulled me out to talk to her at least once a week, and made sure I was okay.

My experience with Devon as a family representative was short but terrible. It was the last month or so of my program, and he was trying to say my old problems were still problems, which they were not. He cared more about his own opinion than his kids’ on his caseload. When first switched to him, I told him “I am not one of your problem kids. I’ve gotten what I need out of this program. It’s simply mechanics now. I’ve worked out emotional and family problems. I am more than willing to help counsel your other caseload kids. But I don’t need to be talked to more than once a week for an update.” He still tried to take me out for talks during school hours, prep time, and other times that I really needed to focus on what I was doing, not spend time running in circles with him.

As an upper level, you have a lot more privileges, such as wearing your hair down, being able to look outside and into mirrors, talk without permission, wear makeup and jewelry, and draw, listen to music, sing, and dance. However, the responsibilities overwhelmed you. You must clean the facility every day, watch the lower levels all day, be last for food, watch O.S.S. if it was open, and calm down lower levels that were crying or angry. These responsibilities took away from school time, personal time, sometimes even sleep if you were working the intake of a new student. You also were more prone to being blamed for things going wrong because staff expected you to do everything, even things you didn’t have the authority to do. I preferred to be a lower level because I could write songs in my journal, even if I couldn’t sing or play guitar, and I could read, and have more time to think. There was so much less drama and pettiness because lower levels have to be silent most of the time. They were only allowed 15 minutes of talk time a day. Otherwise any talking resulted in losing 25-50 points.

Equality was not supported there. Level ones were always looked down on as a nuisance and a burden. In order to talk to someone at talk time, you had to add up to at least four. So a level one could not talk to another level one or a level two. The only way to move up in the program and to gain the support needed from the staff to vote up, you had to be a dictator, nitpicker, spiteful, and a bully. You had to lose the respect of your peers and of yourself to please the ones in charge. As an upper level, watching rooms, I would often times get “off-task” and have group conversations with the room I was watching. I did my best to treat everyone as an equal. I got in a lot of trouble for that. I also was chastised for being a “hippie” and a free-thinker. It was considered “rebellious” and “defiant” to state an opinion, even if it was done in a respectful manner.

I grew very bitter in my time at MWA. I am a huge believer that everyone’s aura feeds off each other, and being in such a gloomy, tense environment, brought me down eventually. I had become a shell. Living on auto pilot. I knew all the right things to say, and all the ways to work the program. The loopholes. I did that for a few months, but something inside me would not let me feel at peace about that. So when I got level four, I stopped being a robot. I started living again, and I became my bubbly, happy self again, but that caused more consequences, which caused me to go on probation (where you act like a level two for a week. You lose all privileges too.) and to drop. In about march of 2013, right after my year date, I decided that I would rather be myself, live by my own standards, morals, and beliefs, and take my exit plan when I turned eighteen in December, than be someone I’m not, lie to myself and others, and graduate something I could never support. This place is openly called a “program”. You do not “program” human beings. You program machines. Robots. You do not strip a person’s identity, give them a level, and tell them to grow. There were girls as young as twelve there. We are TEENAGERS. We make mistakes. So, your kid has a drug addiction. Send them to rehab. So, your kid cuts or is defiant. Get them counseling. Your kid is skipping school. Send them to an actual boarding school. Help them get their GED. Have them talk to a truancy officer. Let them learn slowly, in an environment where they do not feel attacked and vulnerable. These programs are very cookie-cutter. No one is viewed as an individual. They use the same things on every student- force, conformity, emotional abuse, scare tactics… their goal is to tear these girls and boys down to the point where they need people to tell them how to
rebuild themselves. This is where the “programming” starts. Estimated 98% of students, both graduated and pulled, relapse to their drugs, behavior, self-harm, or negative ways. If your child is in need of help, how can you expect them to be “helped” when everything they know, need, and love is torn away from them and they are told they are unworthy? After the program, I was diagnosed with anxiety, and experienced panic attacks, night terrors, and flashbacks about MWA.

No, I was never physically abused, but the emotional abuse is now evident. I say “now” because when you are there, you grow so used to the way it is that you don’t realize how wrong it is, and how much it hurts your being. I had a very good level of self-esteem before the program. I left, and now, I see myself as ugly on most days, find myself seeking the assurance of others, and days where I hide myself in my apartment, in my bed, unable to face the world because I can’t face myself. MWA did make me a more mature, stronger person. But not because of its teachings. Simply because I made it through. That’s one thing I can always tell myself. I made it through. I’m still me.

I was pulled May fifth of 2013 by my parents. I was at level three. Midwest Academy has caused an emotional, physical, financial, and mental strain on me and my family, causing my father to not be able to retire for another ten years. He is nearing 60. The program almost caused a divorce with my parents while I was away, and has caused my mum to be on multiple blood pressure and stress medications. I came out of MWA a bigger mess than when I went it. I relapsed back into drugs, running away, (I moved out about two months after returning home at age seventeen.) an abusive ex-boyfriend, drinking, smoking, and self-harm and anorexia. I have an even worse relationship with my father, but my mother and I are very close now. Over my stay at MWA, things were getting progressively worse. Information I have received from those who got out after me confirms that they are continuing downward.


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