IOWA CITY, Iowa — A boarding school for troubled teenagers in Iowa that is being investigated by the FBI routinely kept pupils in small concrete “isolation boxes” for days or weeks and wouldn’t let them out unless they sat in a specific posture for 24 hours, according to several former students.
Six former students told The Associated Press about abuse they say they suffered while attending Midwest Academy in Keokuk, Iowa. They said the dark, cell-like punishment rooms were often filled with the sounds of students’ screams and motivational recordings piped in through speakers. Surveillance cameras and staff members kept watch.
“You spend your time pounding your head against the wall. You can’t sleep because there is a lot of noise. A lot of girls like to scream in there. You basically look forward to bathroom breaks and those moments when you can get out of your box,” said Emily Beaman, 17, of Wheaton, Illinois.
Beaman said that after weeks of isolation, she got out in July only after cutting herself with a bottle cap and begging emergency responders to place her elsewhere.
The students, who attended the academy between 2008 and last September, said they and their classmates mutilated themselves, hated the lack of activity and natural light, and lost weight due to small meals. Some said they were scarred by the experience months or years later.
Officers raided the academy Jan. 28 to investigate allegations that a staff member sexually assaulted a student. The investigation has since expanded to other possible criminal activity and abuse. Academy owner Ben Trane didn’t respond to AP interview requests. The academy’s 90 students were removed and it has been temporarily closed. Three students told the AP they had spoken with the FBI.
Lauren Snyder, 17, of Springfield, Missouri, recalled begging to get out of isolation last year, after an employee turned up the audio recordings so loud that the speakers were screeching. “It was complete hell,” she said. Snyder said she eventually attempted suicide by tying a sock around her neck, and was sent to a psychiatric hospital the next day.
After being placed in isolation her first day for refusing to take out a belly button ring, Sarah Wilson said she made a point not to return. “I knew I would lose my mind in there,” said Wilson, 20, of Rock Island, Illinois.
The academy says it provides “struggling teens with a safe, structured and disciplined environment.” Many middle- and upper- class families from Midwest states and beyond sent misbehaving teenagers to the academy, which costs roughly $5,000 per month. Trane has said the students were fortunate to have its staff in their lives.
As a privately funded school without state-ordered placements, the academy was largely unregulated. “It flew under the radar,” said Drake University professor Jerry Foxhoven, an Iowa juvenile law expert.
Foxhoven said long-term isolation can be very damaging for juveniles, exacerbating mental illnesses and causing lasting effects that may include post-traumatic stress disorder. He said parents wouldn’t be allowed to keep children in isolation for weeks without facing abuse allegations, and the academy shouldn’t, either.
Former students said the school kept parents in the dark by strictly limiting and monitoring their communications. Only now, they say, are some of their claims being taken seriously.
A typical academy day started with physical education, followed by hours of online-based school work and meetings. Former students said the goal for many was to avoid an “out-of-school suspension” for violating rules, recalling that fighting and insubordination were some reasons they were put in isolation.
“That is the worst I’ve ever been treated,” said Shaun McCarthy, 19, of Avoca, Iowa, who said he was lucky to go into isolation only twice. “It’s not humane.”To get out, students said they had to sit in a certain way for 24 hours. Sometimes, lengthy essays were required.
“They use seclusion preemptively and as a punitive measure,” said former student said James Farris, 24, a nursing assistant in St. Petersburg, Florida. “This is illegal in public health care settings, yet somehow they get away with it.”