Dear Congressman Miller-
For the record, thank you for the opportunity to express my views regarding HR 5876. My name is Colleen M. Harrington, and I am a co-founder of Mission Mountain School in Condon, Montana. During the Full Committee Hearing on Child Abuse and Deceptive Marketing by Residential Programs for Teens held on April 24, 2008, you heard sworn testimony about practices at Mission Mountain School as a preface to urging greater regulation of therapeutic schools and wilderness programs across the country. The purpose of this letter is to address numerous inaccuracies that are present in that testimony which apparently references the time period of 1993 - 1994 in MMS history.
Let me begin with an overview of MMS. MMS was founded on October 1, 1990. As such, the school has been an integral part of my life and my very being for most of my adulthood, for nearly my entire married life, and through the birth of my own two wonderful daughters. When we opened the school, I was 29 years old. I am now nearly 48. I met my husband in 1982, we married in 1989, and we began the school about one year later. For nearly 18 years, I have taken very seriously the responsibility of the role I have played in the lives of the girls and families that have come to our school. I have devoted myself to MMS with much joy, passion, enthusiasm, energy, empathy and compassion. In essence, MMS has not been just a job for me, it has been my life.
As in all professions, many practices that were acceptable 18 years ago are no longer viewed as such today. For example, the early wilderness programs focused on the character building aspects of adversity more than therapy. Today wilderness programs have become much more sophisticated and have their primary focus on therapy. By the same token, 18 years ago, therapeutic schools were virtually non-existent and most were called emotional growth schools with a focus on the developmental growth of the student rather than therapeutic issues.
This was the situation when we opened MMS; there were very few therapeutic school programs or wilderness programs in the country. There was not yet "an Industry." MMS began with a unique staff. Our group of founders included a licensed therapist with a master's in counseling. At the time of the founding of the school he was licensed as a LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), and within the first couple of years applied for and obtained both NCC (National Certified Counselor), and CCDC (Certified Chemical Dependency Counselor) credentials. The founders also included a licensed nurse with both special population and charge nurse experience. Both of these individuals had training in patient rights, ethics and practice standards as part of their professional preparation and as required for their licensure. We had an individual with training and background in chemical dependency treatment, an individual with a master's focusing on wilderness and experiential education, a teaching certificate and experience teaching at the college and secondary level, and myself, Colleen Harrington, B.A., a gifted musician with administrative experience, a love of children and a passion for teaching. This combination of education, training, experience, skills and talents was unusual in the nascent therapeutic schools and programs of the day in both its breadth and depth. This is even more apparent when one considers that MMS had less than 16 students in the early days.
Mission Mountain School has also continually sought to grow and improve as an organization. We embrace the importance of professionalism and best practices as a core founding value. We were licensed by the state from 1991 - 1994. We have had a licensed therapist on staff in the position of clinical director supervising all aspects of therapy continuously since 1990. We have had a licensed nurse on staff since 1990. In 2002 we determined that our therapeutic services would be best suited by a Ph.D. level licensed clinical psychologist functioning as clinical director in addition to our other licensed professional counselors. Today with a population of less than 16 students we still have a licensed Ph.D. clinical psychologist, a LCPC, a registered nurse, a certified recreation therapist, and a M.Ed. in counseling on staff.
Our teachers are qualified by either education or experience and typically hold either certification and/or a master's in a relevant content area. Since our inception in 1990, we have awarded credit hours using a variant of the Carnegie Unit, which requires the equivalent of 135 hours per school year rather than the traditional 120 hours required by most public schools. In addition, we operate on a 12-month calendar school year, which provides even more opportunities for learning to occur. By design, learning happens continuously throughout all aspects of the program including outside of the classroom.
Our students have tremendous influence on their own clothing, hairstyle, jewelry and food choices. They call home twice a week and have biweekly conference calls with parents and their therapist. Families come and visit regularly and students in cooperation with their parents determine their own mailing list.
Overall, the school has simply never engaged in protracted hiking of any nature for any purpose. Typical recreational backpack trips or day hikes are 4-6 miles, with anything over 8 miles being rare. The school has never engaged in a 25-mile one-day hike at any time.
Girls go on regular town trips. We believe that given the opportunity, our students will ultimately make good choices for themselves, and we see time and time again that they do. When people come to visit us, whether they are prospective parents or visiting professionals, they are always struck by the openness, forthrightness and self-possessed demeanor of our students.
Prior to our inception, we established the goal of developing a high quality program. In part to accomplish this, we felt that it was important to have ongoing oversight, and quality control. Toward this end we developed the goal of becoming licensed by the State of Montana and becoming members of the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools (PNAIS).
We chose to seek state licensure because we wanted our program to be reviewed and to be recognized within Montana. Toward that end within the first year of operation, our clinical director and school head approached the Department of Family Services to investigate options for licensure. We were encouraged by our meeting with the director of our region and we traveled to Helena to visit with administrators in the state office. This was favorable and resulted in an initial site visit by licensing officials in 1991. The Department and we were faced with some difficulty in that the only licensure path that was open to us was that as a Licensed Child Care Agency. This licensure was designed for a foster care/adoption agency rather than a private pay parental placement therapeutic boarding school. However, the Department was very impressed by our program and we wanted to try and make it work. This experience was helpful to us and we learned a lot. We undertook the licensure process, applied for and were licensed by the State of Montana from 1991 - 1994. During this time we underwent regular site visits as part of the licensure process. In addition, the state placed several students with us and those students received regular contact with their state social workers. As part of our site visits the licensing social workers regularly and randomly interviewed numerous students without any staff present. The inaccurate testimony referenced earlier states that Mission Mountain School was unregulated during the time frame that we were licensed by the state.
There were never any allegations of abuse or concerns raised by the licensing or supervising state social workers during this time. Ultimately, the Department of Family Services became concerned about their administrative costs and the absence of a real need and/or mandate to license MMS as child care agency. We attempted to convince the Department to establish a new licensure track that would fit and would require less administrative time, but the Department did not think it was necessary. So eventually, in 1994, our relationship with the Department ended.
We continued to seek oversight and our engagement with the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools resulted in an extremely thorough site visit in 1995 as described below. We continued to seek other forms of oversight. In 1999, our school head was asked to serve on the founding board of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. During his tenure from 1999 to 2006 he worked tirelessly to develop, promote and help establish and write both ethical standards and principles of best practices for therapeutic schools and programs. He began to present at regional and national conferences on the importance of risk management and safe guarding the rights of students. In 2006 he published two articles about risk management and behavioral management urging the industry to rise to meet a higher standard. In 2006, he became involved in an effort to pass legislation at the state level that would establish licensure for therapeutic schools and programs in Montana. On February 9, 2007 he testified as follows to the Montana State Legislature. "Our Industry needs a licensing board to establish standards of care and practice to ensure the safety and well being of the adolescents and parents using such programs." We continue to support the need for state licensure to this day.
We chose PNAIS because of that organization's stated commitment to the importance of freedom of inquiry, diversity, and student rights and because it was the premier independent school association in the northwest with the most difficult criteria for membership. PNAIS was founded in 1941, as professional organization serving independent elementary and secondary schools in the northwest, and currently has 105 member or candidate member schools. PNAIS requires schools be accepted as candidate members before application can be made for full membership and accreditation. PNAIS is a regional association of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and now has reciprocity with the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools (NAAS). NAAS was founded in 1917, and accredits schools, colleges and universities all throughout the northwest.
We were accepted as candidate members by PNAIS in 1991. After two years of preparation we started a rigorous and demanding self-study process during the years of 1994 -1995 which culminated in a 4-day site visit by a team of six professionals. This peer review team included two PNAIS school heads, a licensed therapist, an art therapist, a specialist in outdoor education and therapy, and an experienced professional educator. They interviewed every student, met with each staff person, talked with parents, interviewed community members, sat in classes, therapy sessions, activities, ate meals and in short thoroughly examined every aspect of MMS. MMS successfully obtained full membership status and accreditation in 1996. In the Response Report written by the PNAIS Study Team, the Team Chair wrote "We were not prepared for the level of compassion we experienced, for the level of universal caring - - one person for another, the group for individuals, the individual for the group - - or for the overwhelming sense of safety." He noted "We could not fail but be impressed with what had been done in five short years." He noted that, "We know that the five owners, all of whom are still the owners, and still 100% involved with the school, have put themselves and their lives on the line to make this school a reality. We sensed that we were in the presence of an excellent model for this kind of education..." He further states "What we are talking about of course, is total immersion, education of life and for life, with a single-minded commitment to the student, these girls. This may be the ultimate we've seen in student centered education." Subsequent to this site visit, evaluation and accreditation, our school head was invited to sit on the PNAIS Board of Governors and served from 1996-2003.
We successfully underwent our re-accreditation in 2005 after a similarly exhaustive and thorough process preparation, self-study and peer review. The 2005 team was similarly well qualified with over 80 years combined professional experience. Two boarding school heads one of whom was the head of a therapeutic boarding school led the team. In addition, there was a licensed therapist/school counselor, a master poet/school administrator, a business/facility/risk management specialist, and a professional educator. This review team had a similar experience as the first and stated in their report that: "You have earned our highest respect for being a community that not only strives for excellence but exemplifies the greatest attributes of human dignity and respect for others." The team commended MMS for " The use of a metaphorical milieu that focuses on the journey and an understanding of the developmental position of teenagers between concrete and abstract thinking" Further they commended MMS for "Creating an intentional, healing community that provides both care and structure for the students." They also drew attention to "An exemplary risk management program which balances student decision making within the boundaries of acceptable risk." To date, MMS is one of only two therapeutic schools ever accredited by PNAIS.
MMS graduates have been accepted into over 250 schools and colleges across the country, including Boston University; Tufts; Penn State; Duke; Reed College; Hampshire College; Sarah Lawrence; Mt. Holyoke; Brandeis; Rutgers; Randolph Macon; Columbia; Bryn Mawr; Cal Poly, Berkeley, and the schools in the University of California system; Universities of: Oregon, Montana, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Hampshire, Maine, North Carolina; and Vermont. Our students have also gone on to graduate programs at schools such as George Washington University, John F. Kennedy University, Harvard Law School, University of Georgia Law School, and Rice University.
We agree wholeheartedly that abusive and deceptive practices in any residential programs are abhorrent and must stop. In addition, you are of course welcome to come visit us at any time and see for yourself.
Most Sincerely and Respectfully Yours -
Colleen M. Harrington
Co-founder, Assistant School Head, Teacher, Loving Wife and Mother
Mission Mountain School
1540 Guest Ranch Rd.
PO Box 980
Condon, MT 59826
I lost my son a few years ago because he fell through the cracks and we were only able to accommodate his troubles with a military school here in NM where he was raped and stabbed and turned into more of a dope fiend than he was in the public schools.
He went to CA where he was sentenced to a boot camp with an opportunity for a half way house afterwards. He finally ended up dead after an overdose when he was dumped by the cops in the emergency room of a training hospital in LA where they practiced keeping him in a coma until we, as parents, said, "enough."
We both had to work really hard, and we had not much support from the older generation, although they did what they could. Our son was out of control by the time he was 10 and we did not know what to do or where to look and no one else did either. When our son was littler we didn't have mental health insurance. Our son was proud that he was a latch-key kid - so you see how that approach worked. Also the counsel of the day was "tough love" Alex was 29 and this was in 2005. I cry every day.
I am recently retired and currently working pro bono on helping to find funding for scholarships that would provide such people as my son an opportunity to learn appropriate social, emotional and leadership skills through a equine-assisted program. The specific program I am working on is called Helping Kids Be Kids, a non-profit branch of a private practice run by Ann Remick-Barlow, MSW,LISW, CSW,BCD,LMF, here in Las Cruces, NM. We are currently trying to get the non-profit part off the ground and it looks like we are going to have to ask for state funding.
I was deeply impressed by your letter to Rep. Miller. I can't help wondering how much your pupils have to pay for a really fine program such as described in your letter and for asking your advice on how we could set up our "horse camp" (8 sessions, 2 months) so that kids can learn leadership and resiliency prior to therapy and so they can learn how to be authentic without being troubled. We have documented research about how well horses help at-risk (who isn't nowadays?) kids gain confidence in positive leadership roles (unlike the one Rep. Miller seems to be pursuing) and emotional and social stability BEFORE it's too late to fix them. In other words, learning before therapy.
Any thoughts would greatly be appreciated.