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Posted: Aug 26, 2006 08:30

UNDER THE RADAR

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By: Lon Woodbury

When I first started working in this industry of private Parent-Choice residential schools and programs in 1984, we had the luxury of being pretty much "under the radar." That is, few took notice of these schools and programs, partly because few had any idea of what we were doing and because there were very few schools and programs of this type. However, those who took the time to investigate were amazed at the positive results they saw and became advocates. When word got out to parents about a "last chance" choice that produced good results, even after the child had failed in mainstream RTCs, psychiatric and school facilities, the industry expanded to accommodate the increasing demand.

School and program officials tended to like being "under the radar" because local officials usually reacted hostilely and assumed the worst without any effort to be fair and open-minded. For example, when I first moved to Bonners Ferry to work at Rocky Mountain Academy during the original CEDU expansion into north Idaho, the local prosecutor was almost drooling over the opportunity to expose the school and obtain his 15 minutes of national fame. Although he had never set foot on the school's property, had no idea of what they did or how, he invested a lot of time and energy into his efforts of trying to close it down. He was unsuccessful because his efforts were founded on a fear-based fantasy that was ignorant of any facts. In some cases elsewhere, local fears did manage to force programs to move on to other jurisdictions that were more open to these new ways of helping struggling teens, but the good schools and programs not only survived, they thrived.

In the early 1990s, this lack of visibility started to change when three young people died in southern Utah boot camps that were masquerading as wilderness programs. When the national media pounced on this juicy story, they inaccurately associated these tragedies with wilderness programs instead of boot camps because of their lack of understanding. This was the start of the media paying attention to the developing parent-choice residential school and program phenomena. Over the next decade, the media increasingly assigned reporters to write stories on some aspect of the parent-choice industry. In part, the increased media attention and questions led several states to begin grappling with the issue of licensure.

However, because the states didn't understand exactly how different the private parent-choice schools and programs were from the already existing schools and programs, they were as confused as the media. It soon became obvious that these new approaches did not fit under the old categories of regulation. Some states, like Utah and Idaho, worked with representatives of the industry to develop new categories and regulations that were specifically designed for these new types of programs. Others, like the state of Washington, just lumped them into some already existing category, which was often such a poor fit that the consequences were ridiculous. For example, one program in the state of Washington for substance abusing teen-age boys was put under the category of group homes. Then, because the state regulations for that category required it, the program had to spend $15,000 to put in a second hot water system that was capable of sterilizing diapers.

The industry itself adjusted in several ways to this increased scrutiny from the media and the States. First, professionals in the field learned how to work with the media when there was a tragedy, giving them the facts to work with rather than letting reporters speculate and write articles based on wild rumors and inaccurate assumptions.

Second, the professionals in the industry were in the forefront of favoring state oversight, and worked with many states in developing regulations that made sense. They helped write regulations that would give the state adequate oversight, thus making it harder for incompetent or inexperienced programs to gain state licensure.

In another area, the professionals working in the field developed professional organizations to recognize those schools and programs that were competent and ethical. The major organization in this was the National Association for Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP), which is working at bringing all the programs together with a single voice, and requires all members to sign ethical and good practices statements. On the educational consultant side, the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) stepped up their efforts to ensure that their members who work with special needs have adequate backgrounds and experience to do a good job. Now when parents don't know whom to believe, they can always check to see if the referring source, school or program is a member of one of these organizations. The standard purpose of professional organizations is to confirm to the public that that person or program has made at least a minimal effort to be evaluated and accepted by their professional peers.

In addition, many professionals are individually speaking out with their concerns about the competency of some schools, programs and referring agencies. One thing they are trying to say is that it is inaccurate and unfair to lump all programs together and judge them all based on the activities of just the most controversial schools, programs or referring agencies.

These actions are evolving adjustments by this industry to a healthy and growing public scrutiny. Currently there are two new factors that reflect this:

First is the response to demands that the schools and programs prove their effectiveness through properly conducted research. In the past, success was mostly demonstrated by anecdotal evidence and testimonials, but this lack of serious research is beginning to be properly addressed. In 2002, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council sponsored a research study through the University of Idaho on therapeutic wilderness programs, indicating positive outcomes http://www.obhic.com. This research study is continuing. In addition, Dr. Ellen Behrens just released this month the first phase results of a three-year residential outcomes study for NATSAP at the American Psychological Association conference in New Orleans. This study is a vital first step in establishing a body of research that will answer the question; how effective are private residential programs for adolescents?

The other factor that indicates there is an increase in public scrutiny and interest in this industry is illustrated in the recent surge of interest by investment firms looking into the investment prospects of private parent-choice residential schools and programs. Although some investment firms have invested in this industry during the past few years, I and many other Educational Consultants have been inundated by phone calls from investment firms this month who are trying to understand this industry. They want to know who the major players are, if it looks like the industry will continue to expand, etc. Obviously there are some immediate investment opportunities available that sparked this interest.

So, as this industry comes of age, long gone are the days when we were working "Under the Radar." We now need to firmly establish minimum standards based on professional competency and ethics, and research-based practices. That is gradually what is happening.




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