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 Posted Nov 6, 2000 

Bodenhamer Letter to Oregonian
October 31, 2000
Gregory Bodenhamer
Obsidian Trails
Bend, Oregon
(541) 318-6034

You have used the tragic death of a young man to misrepresent, distort, and condemn the work done at Obsidian Trails and the Back In Control Center. With only rumors, incomplete facts, untruths, and ignorance, the Oregonian, in its rush to judgment, painted a picture that is malicious and purposefully distorted. The article was written by Jim Lynch, a writer who admitted to having little experience or education in the fields of wilderness therapy, residential treatment, or other treatment models used with out of control teens. Lynch misstates, omits, and distorts what I have said and done. He also makes things up. And no one at the Oregonian apparently bothered to fact-check Lynch's story. 

Eddie Lee was not "held face-down in the dirt because he was combatively refusing to return to camp…." And I never said that he was. That is a malicious lie, and it goes against everything I believe in. I have spent over twenty years advocating that children not be punished to get them to behave. I would never encourage or allow a child to be "held face down in the dirt" as a means of forcing him to go back to camp, or to do anything else. 

Eddie had refused to come back to camp (about two hundred feet away), even though his field instructors spent close to fifteen minutes encouraging and negotiating with him to return. He was then taken by the arm and walked back toward camp. He was not dragged, manhandled, or hurt. He was restrained in a prone position only after he tripped one of his field instructors and went into a rage. The staff continued to restrain him as he kicked, scratched, and bit. During the entire time he was being restrained, the field staff continued to talk to him, telling him that as soon as he had calmed down and was no longer violent, he would be released. During his rage he stopped breathing. The field instructors immediately started performing CPR and continued until Air Life arrived and transported Eddie to the St. Charles Medical Center where he subsequently died. 

Lynch asserts that there had been "mounting pressure to prevent kids from running away…" from Obsidian Trails. Lynch told me he believed that the Bureau of Land Management had put pressure on the school to restrain runaways and that we had become more aggressive to protect our land-use permit. He found a BLM document asking if Obsidian Trails would "restrain runaways" but didn't bother asking the BLM to clarify the question or its purpose. I told him that was absolutely untrue, and I'm sure the BLM told him the same thing. But Lynch jumps from the "journalistic construct" (something that may or may not be true, but helps the story) of being pressured to stop runaways, to Eddie being physically restrained. Eddie, however, wasn't attempting to run away. He was physically restrained to stop his assaultive behavior. Moreover, few, if any of the children who have ever attempted to run away from Obsidian Trails have been restrained. 

Lynch returns to the issue of restraints and writes, "[Bodenhamer's] books encourage parents of violently tempered kids to use restraint holds to safely pin their kids face-down [emphasis added] to the floor until tempers subside and their muscles relax." On this charge, Lynch uses another "journalistic construct" to prove that I am tough on kids. 

I did not encourage parents to "pin their kids face-down to the floor" in Back In Control, How To Get Your Children To Behave or in Parent In Control. In Parent In Control, I encouraged parents confronted by physically aggressive teenagers, and who have no outside resources available to them, to get training in pins, holds, and restraints from a qualified professional. And, in the context of training I wrote, "With consistent practice you can learn how to put violent children on the floor and keep them there until they have calmed down and are willing to go to a time out to finish the calming process…." I have never told anyone to "pin" a child on any age "face-down" on the floor or in the dirt. 

Lynch writes that, "The directors of seven youth wilderness camps in the West insist they rarely, if ever, restrain students. When dealing with runaways, for example, they all say they simply shadow them, let them vent, tire out and then take them back to camp." He then goes no to assert, "That isn't the prevailing policy at Obsidian."

Lynch lied again. As noted above, virtually none of the children who have ever attempted to run from Obsidian Trails have been restrained. Generally, students are only restrained for violent, aggressive behavior. And, like the seven other wilderness programs that Lynch cites, actually having to restrain a student is rare. But all schools, programs, and agencies working with children who use violence to get their way, have to periodically restrain combative, physically aggressive children. 

In the last few years, students in several wilderness programs violently attacked and seriously injured staff. In one case a field instructor had to be life-flighted to the hospital after being assaulted by a student with a shovel. Some of the attacks resulted in permanent disabilities. In most cases the students wound up stealing cars and money while on the run. Last year, in Utah, it took dozens of police officers to find and apprehend several boys who had attacked their field instructors and left them bound and injured. The ringleader was a boy from Oregon. Three years ago a wilderness program in Idaho had a group of students riot and seriously injure both staff and students. Another program had a student sneak a loaded handgun into the field. 

As far as "shadowing" runaway students is concerned, most runaways take off like the proverbial "bat out of hell" and do everything they can to disappear. "Search," rather than "shadow" is a far more accurate word to describe what happens when a child takes off. And when a child runs away in most outdoor programs, including Obsidian Trails, a search protocol is put into place and staff members look for the child in a highly organized and comprehensive manner until he or she is found. 

In one of my two telephone conversations with Lynch, I attempted to help him differentiate the difference between not letting a student runaway and actually having to "restrain" a combative child. I told him we don't let children runaway, which he chose to define as "physical restraint," and when I tried to clarify the word "restrain" so that we were both using the same definition, he snapped that he was a writer and knew the importance of words. We got into a yelling match over this point, but he determinedly used the word "restrain" in the narrowest possible way. 

Lynch then goes on to say that the Bureau of Land Management put pressure on Obsidian Trails to tighten camp security after a runaway incident last December, where a car was stolen at knifepoint. As a result, he claims students began to be monitored when they went to "water a bush" and had "to shout out their assigned numbers, but they were warned they'd be forced back to camp if they didn't return on their own."

In fact, most outdoor schools and wilderness programs have their students call out numbers or names when they use the latrine. This gives the students privacy to relieve themselves in private, while letting the staff know where they are. We have used this approach from the beginning, irrespective of the BLM. Moreover, the word "force" was Lynch's word, not Obsidian Trails. The expectations of the program are clear and the students are usually cooperative and motivated. 

Obsidian Trails did increase supervision, however. We hired additional staff, going from four students per adult, to three; reduced the maximum number of students in each group from twelve to nine; and assigned each student to a specific field instructor who was responsible for direct supervision. Since that time, no students have attempted to run from the program. 

Lynch does quote me accurately when he wrote, "We cannot allow any student to run off into the desert or forest…. And anyone who thinks we should is an idiot and doesn't care about the kid's welfare." In fact, we do supervise closely to prevent children from wandering off, getting lost, or impulsively running into the desert or forest, and anyone who thinks we shouldn't, clearly does not understand the risks posed. In fact, one prominent wilderness program had a runaway student die as he ran off the edge of a cliff. 

Lynch claims that the wilderness therapy industry has expanded into "a largely unregulated program for troubled and disobedient youth." In fact, virtually every state in which wilderness programs are located either have strict regulations, or are in the process of implementing regulatory structures, including Oregon. 

Lynch writes that I tell parents "to do whatever it takes to maintain adult supervision, including installing double key deadbolt locks on doors and motion detectors in hallways to keep kids from sneaking out." What Lynch doesn't describe is the context of that advice. Parents should take steps to make sure that children who sneak out of the house to abuse drugs or alcohol, engage in sex, steal, vandalize, participate in gang activities, assault others, hang out with skinheads, set fires, or participate in other dangerous and violent behaviors, are at home. And, if that means securing the house with double key deadbolt locks and motion detectors as part of an overall plan to protect their children, then parents need to do it. Lynch also writes "Bodenhamer's approach has been embraced by many people and programs including two Utah wilderness schools who went out of business after a student death at each camp." This time Lynch has constructed a half-truth, attempting to link me to two student deaths at programs in Utah. It is true that several programs in Utah have arranged for me to conduct parenting workshops over the years, including the two programs to which Lynch alludes. But I have also conducted parenting workshops in Utah for the LDS church and for Prevent Child Abuse Utah. Lynch overlooked (chose to ignore) the fact that I offer my assistance to any school, program, or church that wants to help parents regain control of their out of control children. I have conducted parent-training workshops for schools, child protection agencies, probation departments, counseling programs, churches, universities - and wilderness programs that have not had children die. 

Lynch found a former Utah prosecutor who "believes Bodenhamer provided the 'philosophical underpinnings' for both Challenger and North Star," the two defunct wilderness programs in Utah. Lynch didn't say, or ask, how I accomplished that feat. I have never published anything on how to operate or manage a wilderness program. I have never given training on how to run a wilderness program. I have never lectured on how to conduct a wilderness program. And, until I came to Bend, Oregon in 1997, I had not had anything to do with the ownership, management, operation, oversight, or establishment of any wilderness program or outdoor school, including the two defunct programs in Utah. 

I went to Utah to train the parents of Challenger's students three times, and six times to train North Star's parents - period. The management of neither program asked for my advice on how set-up, operate, or manage their programs, nor did I give it. North Star, however, was licensed and supervised by the state of Utah. 

It's possible, but unlikely, that the Utah prosecutor Lynch dug up, is talking about Challenger and North Star philosophically using the Back In Control model of consistent discipline (clearly defining the rules, monitoring at each child's level of need, and consistency); supervision (knowing and approving of where children are, who they are with, and what they are doing to make sure they are safe); and bonding (helping the child re-bond with his or her family). However, it is more likely that he was misinformed or his comments were distorted, as many of mine were. 

Lynch found a training program in Wisconsin that doesn't teach ground holds or pins to restrain out of control children. He then goes on to site an Obsidian Trails document to BLM that reflects the school's restraint training curriculum using, in small part, training done by two Portland area police training officers that included "hair" and "swarm" take downs. 

Yes, Obsidian Trails attempts to train its staff for any eventuality, including violence. The restraint training emphasizes de-escalation and other means to calm students and control volatile situations, but also covers situations that involve student violence. 

Lynch then paraphrases Dr. Robert Cooley, the owner of Catherine Freer Wilderness Expeditions, saying "Cooley… notes several startling deaths in relatively new wilderness camps that shared inflexible approaches toward managing adolescent behavior. Asked if Lee's death fit the scenario, Cooley said: 'Given the information we have at this point, it appears that it does.'"

Lynch's reporting of Dr. Cooley's interview is misleading. Before Eddie's death, three students had died in wilderness programs over the last ten years. Two died of heat-related deaths and one died of a perforated ulcer. None died of "inflexible approaches toward managing adolescent behavior." And Dr. Cooley's response was based on Lynch's untrue description of Eddie being "held face-down in the dirt because he was combatively refusing to return to camp…."

Toward the end of the article Lynch claims that Charlie Sharp, one of the field instructors restraining Eddie, outweighed the boy by fifty pounds. In fact, they weighed approximately the same weight. In contrast to the Oregonian's repeated description of Eddie as a weak youth, he was in fact an obese youngster who was very strong. 

Then Lynch quotes Lon Woodbury, an educational consultant in Idaho, as saying, "Instead of taking the kid by the arms to drag him back to the camp, why didn't they do what a lot of other programs do, and sit down and say 'OK let's talk about it…. Either the staff made a mistake or they enrolled the wrong kid." Again, Woodbury, like Dr. Cooley above, only had Lynch's version of events to rely on in making his reply.

Eddie, however, was not dragged by the arms back to the camp, and the staff talked to him for close to fifteen minutes before they started walking him back to camp. Woodbury, by the way, denies the accuracy of the statement Lynch attributes to him. 

Obsidian Trails, and most other outdoor schools and residential treatment programs, are designed for temperamentally difficult and out of control children. The typical student at Obsidian Trails is beyond parental control. And, while every student is different, most are highly impulsive, immature, angry, and defiant. Many are aggressive, with a history of emotionally badgering their parents into submission. Some have also pushed, shoved, and otherwise manhandled their parents and siblings. Many have also been placed on Individual Education Plans (IEP) at school because of learning disabi9lities, or are under federally mandated 504 plans for at-risk students. Virtually all have come to Obsidian Trails after months or years of unsuccessful counseling. Some have also appeared before the juvenile courts, or have been previously placed in psychiatric hospitals or residential treatment centers because of their out of control behavior. For many families there is no option. They have tried everything else. Our track record with such students is impressive as evidenced by the many letters of support that we have received from parents and students alike (some of which have been published in the Oregonian). In fact, we are so confident in our approach that we offer a two-year guarantee.

A reporter who misrepresents the facts and then asks for comments based on that misinformation is not to be trusted or believed. When a paper publishes such work, it is colluding in a practice that is irresponsible and unprofessional. Naturally, I am upset about the impact of such journalism on my reputation but more importantly, I am responsible for the livelihood of many fine individuals and their families. Many innocent people have been hurt by the articles in the Oregonian. My concern at this point is that the Oregonian will continue its vendetta against Obsidian Trails and the Back In Control Center. I would like a letter of apology from your paper for its biased reporting. In addition I would like the opportunity to write an article that will address this misinformation and set the record straight.


Greg Bodenhamer

PO Box 1671 | Bonners Ferry, ID 83805 | 208-267-5550
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