A melee at a remote school for troubled teenagers has left neighbors fearing for their safety and police puzzled over a fight that sent five people to a hospital.
For nearly two hours Tuesday evening, students were out of control, beating staff members with fire extinguishers. An ax was used to hack up buildings and a car at Northwest Academy, a private school on some 200 acres south of here.
Two school employees were injured in the melee, as were three students. One of the workers was choked and suffered a dislocated shoulder when hit with a fire extinguisher.
“We don’t know what started it, but a fire alarm was pulled and about 20 students started a ruckus,” said Boundary County Sheriff Greg Sprungl.
The battle between staff and students broke out about 7:15 p.m. About 25 students and five employees were on the school campus in the woods up Ruby Creek Road.
The students range from 11 to 18 years old. Many have behavior problems or histories of drug and alcohol abuse. They are not allowed to leave the academy grounds, where they are schooled for up to two years.
Apparently, some of the students tried to run from the school and counselors attempted to restrain them when a “near riot” broke out, authorities said.
Students hit workers with fire extinguishers and punched them. They also took up axes used to chop firewood and damaged some of the buildings and a car and tossed chairs into a fire, according to several people who were at the school but did not want their names used.
All of those injured in the fight were treated and released from Boundary Community Hospital.
Authorities declined to release the names of those injured. Sprungl did not say whether the injured students were beaten by other students or by employees trying to defend themselves.
“It’s all very complicated and we are still trying to find out what happened,” Sprungl said.
He declined to give many details about the incident. He said it was still under investigation by his department and the state’s child protection division.
No arrests were made and the students were allowed to remain at the school.
Two students ran away after the fighting, but returned later. Three ambulances and every available deputy were called to the school after an employee managed to get to a phone and call for help. The violence ended when officers arrived. None of the students resisted officers, Sprungl said.
“We have never had anything like this happen at the school before. This just got out of hand,” the sheriff said, noting most of the trouble at the academy is with runaways.
The school is operated by CEDU Inc, based in California. The company also operates Ascent, a wilderness program on the same property, and runs Rocky Mountain Academy, also located in Boundary County. All the schools cater to troubled youth and tuition can run $6,000 a month.
School officials did not return repeated telephone calls Wednesday.
The school put out a press release calling the rebellion and attacks by students a “disturbance.”
“In consideration for the continued safety of our students and staff, the local authorities were called in to assist the staff in restoring the school operation,” the statement said.
The violent night has some residents in the Ruby Creek area nervous.
“I don’t want to be a sitting duck on the hillside with some kids who have violent tendencies running around,” said a woman who lives near the Northwest Academy school. Fearing for her safety, she asked that her name not be used.
Many neighbors initially objected to the school being allowed in the wooded area that is dotted with homes. They feared the students would try to escape and break into homes.
One neighbor said her tool shed and a nearby cabin were broken into. She can’t prove it was students from the school but said she never had problems before the academy arrived.
“I’m not happy about it at all. They say they are controlled up there but apparently they are not,” she said.
Some of the other neighbors who complained about the school coming to Ruby Creek have now been hired to work there as teachers and maintenance personnel. They declined to discuss the school or what happened when the fight broke out.
A former counselor at the school, however, said problems have been ongoing at the campus and a counselor was kicked in the head by a student earlier this month. Others still working there said the campus had been “hot” - meaning students were getting unruly.
“In the past month there were three assaults I know of,” said Ken LaMarsh, who quit as a counselor in June, but still talks to staff members. When he worked there, he said, students were caught breaking into homes and stores and stealing cars.
“With those kind of kids, that stuff is going to happen. They (the students) don’t want to be there,” he said, emphasizing he was not critical of the academy program itself. LaMarsh said his concern is how the program is being run. He claims the school has too few staff members to deal with the violent youth enrolled there.
“The company will say I am a whining, sniveling former employee but that is not the case,” LaMarsh said. “I am concerned about the staff and them saying this is supposed to be a safe environment for the kids.”