Importing Troubled Teenagers Behavior Camps Become Big Business In Region

FROM FOR THE RECORD (Wednesday, June 19, 1996): Mel Wasserman founded Rocky Mountain Academy and other CEDU programs for troubled teenagers. Dan Earl was an academy administrator. Their first names were incorrect in a June 2 article.

A new industry is quietly thriving in the Inland Northwest. It exists only because of teenagers like the one Kristy Vallar used to be.

“If my parents wouldn’t have sent me, I’d be dead or in jail right now,” says the 20-year-old Vallar, who four years ago was running away from her Bonners Ferry home, getting suspended, hanging out with gang-member wannabes.

Where they sent her was a wilderness camp, and then a boarding school, whose specialty is straightening out troubled teenagers.

“We have an epidemic in behavior problems in young people,” says her stepfather, Lon Woodbury.

Woodbury makes his living helping parents find the right place for their out-of-control kids. More and more of those are in the region, in 15 or 20 programs strung from Spokane to Trout Creek, Mont.

Kids from all over the country are coming here to learn how to get along, how to stay off drugs, how to study, how to know themselves.

They’re taken by the handful into the homes of mom-and-pop psychologists, or by the dozens into therapeutic boarding schools. Some attend public schools. Some stay for years. Some come for only a few weeks for counseling sessions disguised as wilderness trips.

The programs are described in many ways, from “emotional growth” and “youth at risk” to “hoods in the woods.” All are costly, ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 a month.

Woodbury tracks about 100 programs for his directory called “Places for Struggling Teens.” There are many he doesn’t know about. Utah and the Inland Northwest are the two big regions for wilderness-based offerings.

Woodbury’s office is a converted house in Bonners Ferry. The town, whose timber economy is struggling, benefits greatly from the booming emotional-growth business.

CEDU Inc., runs four different programs for troubled kids in Boundary County. Including its Sandpoint office, it employs 280 people in the Idaho Panhandle.

“They have a maximum need for teachers, counselors, night watch people, drivers, kitchen people,” says Pat Stockdale of the state job office in Bonners Ferry. “It’s year-round.”

CEDU was founded by Earl Wasserman, based on his belief that, in order to learn, “first you see, and then you do.” He also has schools in California.

In 1982, he bought a back-to-woods alternative school east of Bonners Ferry, named it Rocky Mountain Academy, and sent Larry and Carmen Earl to run it. They brought two other staff members and seven students.

“The kids felt like they were in Siberia,” recalls Carmen Earl, now Carmen Mier y Teran of Sandpoint.

So did the staff.

“I came from inner city San Francisco,” says Doug Kim-Brown, who arrived later and was eventually headmaster. “When I saw a sign that said ‘Grizzly Bear Alert,’ my first thought was: ‘That’s a rock group. There is culture here!”’

At first, Rocky Mountain staffers were unsure if they were going to run a trade school or wilderness program. But visiting psychologists and counselors were enthusiastic about sending kids to the remote place, with its creek and woods and mountain vistas.

Rocky Mountain Academy students used to number in the dozens. Now, it’s an accredited high school with the look of a sprawling hunting lodge.

Collectively, CEDU’s four Idaho programs house 300 teenagers. Offering a solution to nearly any kid’s problems, the programs are marketed with videos, elaborate booklets and an Internet home page.

Some things haven’t changed.

Referrals from psychologists, school counselors and educational consultants remain the lifeblood of the industry. Those specialists are courted by emotional growth schools.

One reason there are more programs is that a lot of staffers, including Woodbury, left Rocky Mountain Academy to strike out on their own.

Some wanted independence. Some were burned out. Some thought they could provide better or less expensive therapy. Not counting fees, tuition at Rocky Mountain is $4,150 a month.

Kim-Brown runs Echo Springs, a Bonners Ferry program that helps college-age kids who aren’t emotionally ready to be on their own.

Larry Bauer and John Baisden just launched Glacier Mountain Expeditions. They take kids on six-week backpacking trips.

“It’s a very open field,” says Bauer, a former Rocky Mountain admissions counselor. “There are so many troubled kids.”

Dave Yeats used to teach at Rocky Mountain. He and his wife, Megan, now run Trailside School in Bonners Ferry. They take six kids into their home.

Yeats likes the flexibility that a small program offers, but doesn’t accept the tougher kids.

A few Rocky Mountain Academy runaways have stolen cars and committed crimes. A 1994 suicide at the school made small headlines, and there’s occasional publicity over some celebrity’s child attending there. But, aside from scuttlebutt about TV comedian Roseanne being spotted in Bonners Ferry, the programs mostly enjoy a low profile.

The same is true across the state line in Montana, where treatment of troubled kids is also a growing industry. It started in 1979, when Steve Cawdrey founded the Spring Creek Community. That grew to serve 60 kids before closing down five years ago.

Four schools in the Noxon/Trout Creek area are owned by former staffers of Spring Creek, which recently reopened.

Other programs have come and gone, such as Sandpoint’s Eagle Mountain Outpost. Carl Olding used to work there. Now he runs his own Elk Mountain Academy for a dozen boys near Clark Fork.

“We’re looking for a different kind of kid than Rocky Mountain - kids just starting to get in trouble,” says Olding. “If a kid runs away, as happens about once a year, he can’t come back.”

Then, he’ll be his parents’ problem again.

That kind of family grief is the underpinning of the industry. Jeannene Morphis of Spokane knows about that. She and her husband, Bob, found themselves helpless to deal with Bob’s daughter Caesy.

“She was slashing her wrists, burning herself, hanging out with heroin addicts,” recalls Morphis. “It didn’t matter what school you put her in, didn’t matter what friends you wouldn’t let her be with.”

The couple tried therapists. They tried a Christian boarding school. Nothing helped.

Finally, the Morphises heard through the grapevine about an educational consultant who might help them.

For the last five months, Caesy’s been at Cross Creek Manor, a Utah boarding program where kids wear slippers until they can be trusted not to run.

“She didn’t want to go. She cried. One time she threatened to kill herself,” says Morphis.

Now, says her stepmom, Caesy is making real progress.

To pay for that help, the Morphises refinanced their home. That’s common. Other families raid college funds, turn to grandparents, seek out the few scholarships that are available. The lucky ones are wealthy or have insurance that will pay.

Sometimes parents see improvement and, watching the bills pile up, pull their children out before they’re ready.

“The first year, there’s a lot of tearing down” of a teen’s destructive side, said former Rocky Mountain counselor Brad Hanson. “If the child leaves then it’s ‘Whoops, we forgot to build it up.”’ Anna Seymour recalls being stripped of her image at Rocky Mountain, which she attended in 1987-1988.

“I was kind of a stone-rocker. And they said ‘You can’t wear black, you can’t wear makeup.’ It took me a few months to get used to seeing myself in the mirror,” Seymour says. “I hated it at first, then I started to like it.”

Seymour left before graduating, but not because of money problems. She and her sweetheart Lee Cunningham went beyond the hand-holding that was allowed. Both were sent home.

Now 24 and 25, the couple recently got engaged. Unlike most Rocky Mountain graduates, they stayed in North Idaho. Seymour owns a Sandpoint beauty salon.

Cunningham works for an engineering firm. He wishes programs like Rocky Mountain Academy were more affordable.

“If it wasn’t for that school, there’s no telling where I would be,” Cunningham says. “I learned a very good work ethic. I learned what true friendship is about.”

There’s been little research documenting the long-term results of emotional growth schools, according to Woodbury. But there are many testimonials like those of his stepdaughter.

Kristy Vallar says she almost walked out of Montana’s Mission Mountain School when she turned 18.

“I was free to go. But something the counselor said made me feel like somebody actually cared, there was somebody that was going to help me.

“At that moment I decided, I’m going to go in my room and unpack.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ABOUT THIS SERIES Today The business of helping troubled teenagers is one of the Inland Northwest’s growing industries. Regulation of “emotional growth” schools and camps is inconsistent and sometimes nonexistent. Coming Monday Nestled in the North Idaho pines, Ascent is the region’s largest wilderness therapy program. When their kids need help but refuse it, desperate parents call on specialists like Richard Armstrong.

This sidebar appeared with the story: ABOUT THIS SERIES Today The business of helping troubled teenagers is one of the Inland Northwest’s growing industries. Regulation of “emotional growth” schools and camps is inconsistent and sometimes nonexistent. Coming Monday Nestled in the North Idaho pines, Ascent is the region’s largest wilderness therapy program. When their kids need help but refuse it, desperate parents call on specialists like Richard Armstrong.

Click here to comment on this story »



Contact the Spokesman

Main switchboard:
(509) 459-5000
Customer service:
(509) 747-4422
(509) 459-5400
(800) 789-0029
Back to Spokesman Mobile