Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Small Victories

I saw something in this past Sunday's Kansas City Star that gave me a tiny bit of hope, both for our culture in general and the ongoing atrocity that is the Judge Rotenberg Center in particular: the Thayer Learning Center*, a boot-camp-style institution for "troubled teens," which has accumulated a fairly long list of complaints of abuse and neglect of its inmates since its opening in 2002, has closed, and been sold to a Cheyenne Indian educator named Lakota John, who plans to open a new, very different kind of school on the old Thayer grounds.

The new school will be geared toward Native American young people of all tribes, with emphases on sustainable agriculture (using traditional, Native American farming methods), outdoor skills, and Native American culture, art and spirituality.

While I'm sure the original proposals for the old Thayer Learning Center sounded equally high-minded, and while, at this early stage, all we really have are words, I still think that, based on what's been said about how the White Buffalo Academy will be run, there will be factors in place offering some protection against a Thayer-like pattern of systematic abuses taking root there once more.

First, and to my mind foremost, where Thayer kept its inmates isolated from their families and from the larger community of Kidder, Missouri, the White Buffalo Academy is meant to be extensively integrated with various communities: not just Kidder, but also with the various Native American tribes, international humanitarian organizations, and, eventually, other schools and youth organizations (like the Boy and Girl Scouts) across the region.

From the Chillicothe, Missouri Constitution-Tribune:
"If he does what he plans to do, I think it will be a huge asset to the community," says Kidder Mayor Melissa Gough of Lakota John. Her concerns about the future of the facility center on the controversies surrounding the former teen boot camp. ...
Mayor Gough has expressed her concerns about secrecy surrounding the former operation to Lakota John and he has assured her that students who may help with trash pickup and other community projects in Kidder will be allowed to talk to locals and give their names (Thayer cadets were not allowed to do so). In fact, he wants to be open and totally honest with the community and invites anyone who wishes to come and visit the facility and talk to him about his plans to open the academy in the next 30 days.
From the St. Joseph, Missouri News-Press & Gazette:
The school will become part of the Utah-based Sacred Path Recovery Program [link], with plans to open in all 50 states and Canada. The organization is composed of various tribes. An informational brochure said Sacred Path "is designed to help people identify, process, and release the issues that deny them the right to live happy, productive lives."

Traditional American Indian methods will be utilized.

"It's for all kids that want to achieve a higher level of learning," added Lakota, whose ancestors hailed from the North American plains.

The academy also will feature American Indian powwows, drumming, sculpting, equestrian arts, an amphitheater with surround sound for various performances, and other activities. Vietnam War veterans will be brought in as speakers.

Another emphasis will be placed on growing quality food, proper eating and overall wellness.

"We're going to start an agricultural program," he said. A slow-drying process for food will be created to benefit overseas humanitarian projects, and negotiations are under way with major companies for their assistance. Herbs will be grown on a farm and livestock will be raised. Outdoor skills will be taught.

"Our soils are going to be phenomenal," he said.

Plans also call for extending invitations to the region's scout programs and schools. The academy will serve perhaps 100 students.

"My thing is making sure we do things in moderation," Lakota said. "We want to build a community of solid individuals ... I want to do this very low-key. We want to do this with love."

The academy will offer preparatory education for students who wish to enroll at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., and other institutions. A grand opening date for the White Buffalo Academy will be announced later.
Besides the emphases on transparency and community involvement, which at the very least would make abuses harder to keep hidden for very long, as the Thayer owner-operators did, I also think I see an important difference in the two enterprises' attitudes toward the young people in their care. Thayer Learning Center's guiding principle was literally to break the wills of its young inmates: the harsh treatment and withholding of basic necessities (like, say, water, food, rest, opportunity to bathe) until inmates "earned" them by obedience were meant to teach these willful children "the meaning of no." A philosophy like this is practically a recipe for abuse and neglect, because when you treat people who depend on you like enemies to be vanquished, you will react to everything they say or do as if it's a threat or a stratagem. You'll learn to ignore their signs of distress, and you'll let them die --- of something as treatable or preventable as a spider bite or overexertion or dehydration --- before you'll risk letting them put one over on you.

I don't see this kind of alienation in any of the online material I've seen about White Buffalo Academy or its parent organization, the Sacred Path Program. Rather than stamp out behaviors/attitudes they don't like, these organizations seem more interested in empowering their students, teaching them to be the best they can be and restoring their ancestral heritage and culture to them.

So, on to the million-dollar question: What factors forced Thayer Learning Center to close, and can similar factors be made to converge on the Judge Rotenberg Center? What makes these two abusive institutions different?

*Pedantic linguistic aside: I *HATE* the euphemistic use of "learning center" to describe what is essentially a prison. While the mental and behavioral adaptations people make to survive in a prison/institution environment --- keep your head down, don't cause trouble, don't draw attention to yourself, keep quiet, mind your own business and do as you're told --- might be called "learning," in the Skinnerian sense of that word, they also tend to sabotage a person's capacity for any other kind of learning. You get really good at surviving that hostile environment, but the price you pay is that you lose those parts of yourself that don't help you do that.

Laura Tisoncik describes this kind of psychic shriveling really well in this 2004 conversation with Amanda Baggs:
I spotted [characteristic psychiatric-institution-survivor behavior] in you right away. How do I describe it? You were an obvious case of it. You had a kind of submissiveness ... you were oftentimes looking for where the rules were so you could follow the rules. ... You were waiting or looking for the institution around you, as if, it's like, "Where is it, it's hiding here somewhere!" This is not necessarily a very constructive behavior out in the real world, because it is particularly passive in many ways, and because it is sort of like looking around for it. I really got a sense that you were looking around all the time for the rules. And terribly terrified that you were violating all the rules.

1 comment:

TheWiredOne said...

I went to this camp for three summers, when I was twelve, thirteen, and fourteen back when it was called Stepping Stone (note that in the 2004 conversation Lindsay linked to, this issue is brought up concerning institutions). Their main goals were based on "gaining compliance" and "improving social skills." Part of this was "improving eye contact." Some things that were considered acceptable ways to treat "campers" there were telling them that maybe they wouldn't feel ashamed of their disability labels if they worked harder to "act normally," not allow them to leave a room, read a book, or be alone even if they were stressed out from a whole lot of noise and/or from having to be social for about 8 1/2 hours without a break, and tilt a camper's head up to make eye contact even if it burned the eyes of the camper to make it. All this was done to me.