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Students say they were locked up, starved, at pricey boarding school under FBI investigation

Students say they were locked up, starved, at pricey boarding school under FBI investigation
Former students at the $60,000-a-year Midwest Academy – a “therapeutic school” for “struggling teens” – claim they were placed in solitary confinement, forced to listen to round-the-clock pumped-in noise, and denied sufficient food as punishment.

The school, established in 2003, is located in Keokuk on the corner where Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois meet, and vows to provide “a safe, comfortable, structured and disciplined environment.” With monthly fees averaging between $3,000 and $5,000 Midwest offers a fast, if expensive, academic boot camp for teenagers, who have mostly been kicked out of other schools - with most pupils staying for less than 18 months. It hit the headlines last week after the FBI conducted a two-day raid on the institution resulting in an investigation being opened into sexual abuse, which was later expanded to cover other potential forms of maltreatment.

Lee County Sheriff’s Department has told the Des Moines Register that there have been 80 calls to the police from the academy in the past three years, with five alleged instances of sexual abuse. The Sheriff has also stated that 19 complaints were “founded” – suggesting there was, in fact, evidence of illegal behavior. The incident that sparked the raid was a report from a student that she had been assaulted by a member of staff.

Sixty staff have been laid off by the owners, and 90 students sent home or allocated to state-run care homes, but several current and former attendees agreed to speak to Associated Press, as well as testify to investigators.


‘Inhumane treatment’ 

“They use seclusion preemptively and as a punitive measure. This is illegal in public health care settings, yet somehow they get away with it,” said James Farris, 24, a nursing assistant and former student.

According to Farris and others, students were placed in small concrete “isolation boxes” for at least 24 hours at a time, and could only escape by sitting still in a set position or writing an essay admitting their culpability for the offence that had landed them in the cell. Several students said that the punishment could be extended to several weeks. While they were confined, motivational recordings would be blasted into their cell through speakers, though on at least one occasion the speakers blew out, subjecting the detainees to white noise similar to that employed at Guantanamo.

“You spend your time pounding your head against the wall. You can’t sleep because there is a lot of noise. A lot of girls like to scream in there. You basically look forward to bathroom breaks and those moments when you can get out of your box,” said Emily Beamon, a 17-year-old who cut herself with a bottle cap to be relocated to the medical unit.

The secure unit was watched over by staff, surveillance cameras, and students deemed trustworthy enough. Shaun McCarthy, 19, described seeing a girl puncture her finger and relieve herself on the floor of her cell before anyone came to the rescue, leaving him to clean up.

“That is the worst I’ve ever been treated. It’s not humane,” said McCarthy of his own two stays in the facility.

Initial confinement could be prompted by relatively trivial offenses that went against the zero-tolerance ethic of the academy. Twenty-year-old Sarah Wilson was interned for refusing to remove a belly button ring, while Rachel Adkisson, 19, refused to go for a gym run, and subsequently lost 20 pounds in her cell in two weeks, after intentionally being allotted meager food portions.

“It’s like torture. You think it’s never going to end. You think, how can a human do this to another person?” said the former student, who said she had personally witnessed a suicide attempt.

With many of the students already psychologically vulnerable, the harsh treatment often resulted in trauma, with some interviewees claiming they are still haunted by nightmares of the facility.

Reports have revealed that, as the Midwest Academy was entirely privately funded and had no license either as an educational or psychiatric institution, it had not been subject to any systematic checks throughout its history. The Iowa Department of Education has stated that claims about official accreditation on the Midwest Academy website are “very concerning.”

“We consider the students at Midwest Academy to be home-schooled,” said state Education Department spokeswoman Staci Hupp.

Links with previous abuse scandal schools 

The academy was founded by Bob Lichfield, the owner of the notorious World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS), an umbrella group that once operated more than two dozen ultra-strict schools in the US, Mexico, and the Caribbean. All but a handful have been shut down due to abuse allegations and licensing shortcomings, with the company having to change its name due to a steady stream of lawsuits, one of which specifically involved Midwest students.

Current owner Ben Trane has said that Midwest has severed all links with WWASPS, but has refused to or reveal its ownership structure, or give media interviews. However, another teacher, Tyler McGhghy, who had worked at the facility for seven years, dismissed the allegations out of hand.


“The accusation of physical and emotional abuse is absolutely false. Like in public education, people have bad experiences. But, it did shock me,” he told local NBC affiliate WGEM.

“Talking about the kids being manipulative and dishonest, that’s probably 80 percent of the reason they’re there. They’ve lied to their parents, they’ve been dishonest to their parents,” summed up the teacher, who said that the school observed strict protocols for student-staff relations, specifically to avoid the kind of legal fallout that has now occurred.