Nine former students of Mount Bachelor Academy, a now-defunct school in Oregon for “troubled teens,” have filed a $14.25-million lawsuit against the school for emotional, sexual and physical abuse.
The suit was filed on behalf of the plaintiffs on July 6 in Multnomah County Circuit Court by attorney Kelly Clark, who specializes in child sex abuse cases and who has successfully represented survivors of abuse by Catholic priests and other clergy. Clark recently won a $20 million judgment in a case of sexual abuse involving the Boy Scouts.
“I would say that the people we are representing here are some of the most emotionally damaged young adults that I have encountered, and that includes 300 people who were sexually abused by priests, teachers, pastors and Boy Scout leaders,” Clark said in a video posted on OregonLive.com.
In 2009, I wrote about the systematic sexual and emotional abuse that was carried out under the guise of treatment and endured by students of Mount Bachelor Academy (MBA), a residential school near Prineville, Ore. The allegations of abuse were corroborated by a 2010 state investigation.
Among the most shocking revelations made by female students were claims that they had been forced to perform — or made to watch others perform — lap dances for male students and teachers at the school. Several girls reported being called sexually shaming names while made to perform various sexualized routines during “emotional-growth seminars,” called Lifesteps. Epithets like “whore” and “slut” were written on bedsheets and hung in the room; the state investigation recovered the bedsheets as physical evidence of abuse.
As I reported in 2009:
One 18-year-old former student and victim of rape wept while recounting what happened to her during a Lifesteps seminar. Jane, who asked not to be identified by her real name, left the school in March. “They had me dress up as a French maid,” she said, describing an outfit that included fishnet stockings and a short skirt. “I had to sit on guys’ laps and give them lap dances,” while sexually suggestive songs, like “Milkshake” by Kelis, played at high volume.
“They told me I was dirty and I had to put mud on myself for being raped,” she said in reference to another Lifesteps session. “They basically blamed me for getting raped.”
Following the investigation, Mount Bachelor, which is owned by Aspen Education and parent company CRC Health, the largest behavioral health care provider in the U.S. — both of which are also named in the lawsuit — was voluntarily shut down. So, a 2010 settlement with state regulators did not pursue further action against the school, which no longer sought to renew its license to operate.
In a press statement on July 6, Mount Bachelor’s attorney Greg Chaimov of the law firm Davis White Tremaine said, “While we have not yet had the opportunity to evaluate the allegations in the complaint filed today, we would like to go on record that Mount Bachelor Academy was successful in resolving the dispute with the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) last fall after abundant evidence was collected that showed the allegations of abuse made to the Department were unfounded.”
But Gene Evans, a spokesperson for Oregon’s Department of Human Services, disputes that statement. At the time of the 2010 settlement, he told me: “The settlement does not exonerate MBA … The agency had reasonable cause to believe that abuse or neglect occurred at the school, as uncovered in the investigation.”
The only concession made by the state in the settlement was to remove the word “substantiated” in describing the alleged abuse. Instead, the legal definition for the word was used — the settlement means that the abuse accounts were corroborated and founded — but the word “substantiated” was deleted from the document.
Chaimov’s July 6 statement further denies any wrongdoing by MBA, concluding that:
MBA and its parent companies never condoned or participated in the mistreatment or deprivation of any students. As we understand, the plaintiffs in this lawsuit attended MBA prior to its acquisition by a nationally recognized network of therapeutic schools and programs that espouse comprehensive best practices and safety protocols. While we cannot comment on specific allegations from individual students due to HIPAA privacy regulations, we vigorously deny any and all charges of mistreatment.
The former students who filed the lawsuit attended MBA in the 1990s, when the school’s practices are believed to have been even more extreme than at the time of the 2009 state investigation. The plaintiffs are seeking damages for being forced to publicly simulate events involving sexual abuse and trauma; being denied medical care, food, sleep and bathroom access; and enduring other instances of humiliation and emotional, sexual and physical abuse.
In an interview with Healthland, attorney Clark explained that the MBA program was particularly psychologically harmful because it normalized abusive behavior, making teens wonder whether they were crazy for thinking that attacking and humiliating their peers, or denying them food and access to the toilet, was wrong.
In one “exercise” used in the early 1990s, a teenage girl who had suffered sexual abuse was allegedly made to proposition every male staffer and student in the program in turn. The men and boys were seated on chairs; the girl was made to sit in front of them on the floor. The girl said she had to place her left foot on each man’s right knee and say, “This foot is Christmas.” She then had to place her right foot, as seductively as possible, on his left knee and say, “This foot is New Year’s. Do you want to meet me between the holidays?” If she cried or failed to show enough enthusiasm, she would have to repeat the entire sequence.
Clark sees the lingering effects of the abuse nearly 20 years later. “They have the whole PTSD cluster of symptoms, the self-esteem cluster, anger-related issues, drug and alcohol issues, but there’s a different level of intensity,” Clark says.
“There’s something that happens when you talk to a very young child who has been sexually abused and finally opens up about it. There’s a certain panic in them that they might not be believed,” he says. “I see that same level of panic [in these clients] that I think stems from confusion and ambiguity: ‘Is this normal? Am I crazy? All these very powerful people are telling me what I should do but it doesn’t seem right. I get punished if I question it, punished if don’t do it enthusiastically enough. What’s wrong with me?’”
In many states, claims for abuses that occurred in the 1990s could not be made now due to statutes of limitations, but Oregon has a very broad law that allows survivors of child abuse to bring claims until they reach the age of 40. Because many survivors of childhood abuse don’t connect the abuse to current problems until even later than age 40, such cases are also allowed up to five years after the connection is made, even if the person is over 40.
Clark, who is himself a recovering alcoholic, finds the motivations behind the “therapy” used to treat troubled teens with drug and other problems at MBA mystifying. “What the hell were these people thinking? How do confrontational therapy and breaking down a child — let’s throw away for a moment the more extreme things that they say didn’t happen — how is that supposed to help?” he says.