Suffer the Little Children: Élan School and the Industry of Legalized Child Abuse

"Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it."
-Proverbs 22:6

WARNING: The following story contains graphic material, including images and descriptions of child abuse and dehumanization, which some readers may find disturbing. 
Discretion is advised.

With a population of barely 5200 people, the town of Poland is a sleepy little community in rural Androscoggin County, Maine. It is home to Range Ponds State Park, and has long been a popular tourist destination for people visiting upper New England.

But for decades the little town of Poland harbored a dark, disturbing secret. For years, beneath the majestic forests and the small-town atmosphere, there lurked what was, by all aspects, one of the most horrific and inhumane institutions ever seen in modern US history.

This was the Elan School , an "alternative school" that ostensibly specialized in "behavioral modification" for troubled teens, but was, in fact, little more than a horrifically abusive and totalitarian cult, founded by a charismatic, sadistic psychopath who made millions of dollars off of his enterprise of evil.

For over 40 years, Elan subjected thousands of children to daily abuse, torture, dehumanization, and psychological and physical terror. Their leadership actively encouraged and participated in these horrific activities, taking advantage of their status in order to do so.

But the worst part is that everything Elan did - the torture, the terror, the abuse - was completely legal. And, unbelievably, it still is.

This is the story of Elan School. It is a horrifying story that shines a light on a clandestine, abusive, inhuman, and grossly under-regulated industry that makes its money off of what is, essentially, legalized child abuse.

Joe Ricci: The Evil Within

The story of Elan School could not be told without first addressing the life of its founder and executive director: the charismatic businessman, politician, and self-made millionaire named Joe Ricci - a man who was, in the truest sense, a personification of evil itself.

Joseph J. Ricci - a businessman from New York with a shady past and mysterious connections - was the founder of the Elan School.
A charismatic and manipulative psychopath with a history of sadistic and cruel behavior, Joe Ricci remains one of the most disturbing individuals I have ever studied.

Joseph J. Ricci had humble beginnings. He was born on August 29th, 1946, to an Italian-American family in the town of Port Chester, New York.

Ricci's father abandoned his pregnant wife before his son was even born, and Ricci ended up being raised by his maternal grandparents after his mother signed away custody.

From a young age, Ricci proved to be an intelligent and very charming person. He was friendly and talkative, always maintaining a cool-headed attitude around others. He had an ability to act as a leader among his fellow playmates, and many kids often looked up to Ricci as a social role model.

Joe Ricci as a child

But beneath Ricci's charming, amiable, and friendly exterior, there lurked a frighteningly evil, manipulative, and sadistic personality, consumed by extreme narcissism, disturbing behavior, and a total disregard for the safety and well-being of others. Ricci, in truth, was, even from an early age, little more than a vile, manipulative, and self-centered psychopath. He thrived on power and dominance, and he did not care who he hurt in order to gain it.

From an early age, Ricci developed an insatiable greed for money, and he didn't care how he obtained it, even if it meant stealing from his friends. In fact, Ricci's criminal versatility became quite evident even before he was a teenager. While most kids found recreation in games like baseball or basketball, Ricci found pleasure in shooting animals and engaging in acts of theft, robbery, and burglary.

Ricci also displayed numerous bizarre and disturbing psychosexual behaviors during his early adolescence. When he was 12, Ricci began dating his middle school science teacher, and he became sexually promiscuous by the time he entered high school. Ricci seemed to derive a thrill from his antics, and would often skip class, commit acts of vandalism, break into parked cars, sadistically bully younger children, torture animals, and steal food from restaurants just for the fun of it.

When he was 15, Ricci was seriously injured in a car accident, and spent months in the hospital recovering. He was given massive amounts of painkillers, which he soon became dependent on even after his release. Ricci descended into a life of drug addiction and petty crime, stealing money and using it to fuel his heroin cravings.

After a short stint in a juvenile prison for aggravated robbery and assault, Ricci dropped out of high school in 1966. He never went to college and, for the next several years, he rapidly shifted between multiple jobs trying to find employment.

In 1967, Ricci was arrested again, this time for robbing a mail truck, but the skilled charmer and manipulator was able to talk his way out of a prison sentence. Ricci was instead sent to a rehabilitation center in Connecticut as part of a plea bargain that kept him out of jail. It was at this rehabilitation center, Daytop Village, that Ricci was introduced to the industry of drug rehabilitation programs and therapeutic "residential treatment centers" - an industry that would soon define the rest of his life and the lives of thousands of others.

In 1969, Ricci married and moved to Quincy, Massachusetts, where he briefly ran a drug rehab center called "Survival Inc.". This business earned Ricci a small fortune. After all, the rampant drug use seen during the 1960s had produced a whole host of addicts seeking treatment, and Ricci's center soon became flooded with patients.

Ricci also became involved in Maine's emerging gambling business. He became the owner of the famous Scarborough Downs racetrack in Scarborough, Maine, where he earned millions of dollars from horse-racing. As owner of the racetrack, Ricci was often accused by his employees of being abusive, both physically and emotionally, and he was sued three times by female employees for sexual harassment and death threats.
Additionally, Ricci was accused of docking his workers' pay if they criticized him, and he often clamped down on labor unions that challenged his policies.

But legitimate businesses were likely not the only way Ricci earned his fortune. During the 1960s and 1970s, Ricci also allegedly aligned himself with the Northeast's vast criminal underworld.
As the owner of one of New England's largest gaming establishments, and because of his Italian-American ancestry and New York connections, Ricci had many suspected ties with organized crime syndicates like the Mafia, and he was investigated numerous times by the FBI for being involved in underground gambling establishments, extortion rackets, and trafficking operations.

The full extent of Ricci's connections to the criminal underworld will never be fully known. When the FBI first publicly linked Ricci to the Mafia - causing KeyBank to cut off his line of credit - he sued for defamation. Ricci won the case (and $15 million) but evidence of his ties to organized crime is still abound. 

Despite having no secondary education, Ricci managed to not just become a multi-millionaire before he was 30, but also become the owner of the largest gambling establishment in the state of Maine - an establishment which was known by the FBI to have ties to the infamous Patriarca Crime Family. An FBI report in 1973 had found that nearly half of the horses at Scarborough Downs were owned by mob boss Raymond Patriarca and other high-ranking members of the Boston Mob.

Furthermore, it is alleged that several people who were believed to have come into contact with Joe Ricci during the 1970s later turned up dead under suspicious circumstances.
One of these people was Michael J. "Little Joe" Napolitano, a New England underworld figure whose dismembered body was found in the trunk of a car in New York City in 1978. The killing was later tied to the Patriarca Family - the very same organized crime outfit in New England that had a big investment in Scarborough Downs.
Michael J. "Little Joe" Napolitano, a Portland underworld figure who had fallen out of favor with the Patriarca Crime Family, was found murdered and dismembered in a New York City car trunk in 1978.
Though he was never charged, Joe Ricci - who had numerous suspected ties with organized crime outfits - was considered a person of interest in the murder by the FBI. 

Whether Ricci had any involvement in Napolitano's demise is still unknown. While the FBI briefly considered him a person of interest, saying there was evidence that Ricci had "set up Napolitano for a hit", they never pressed charges. But the idea that Ricci could have been involved in such a crime is by no means implausible.

Morality, ethics, and common humanity were concepts totally foreign to Joe Ricci. If it meant earning him money, power, or status, Ricci would have undoubtedly committed murder without giving it so much as a second thought.

"Behavioral Therapy"

During the 1970s, the youth of America were consumed by the rebellious hippie subculture. Kids openly revolted against the strict system they had been raised in, challenging conservatively-held traditions and vying for more social freedom. Some kids would run into trouble with the law, become involved in drug use or sexual promiscuity, and engage in truancy from school.

This created a sort of moral panic among the older generation, who sought to repress such behaviors among youths. Many adults believed that the way to combat this new rebellious, troublesome attitude among teens was to forcibly "correct" their supposedly deviant behavior, often by enrolling them in controversial "alternative schools" for "troubled" teens.

It was here that Joe Ricci saw an opportunity, not just to earn money but also to set a disturbing fantasy of his into action. Ricci, being a domineering narcissist, craved adoration and worship from others, and he thrived on power, control, and domination over those he considered inferior. This rising industry, he sensed, presented a perfect opportunity to put his sadistic fantasies into action.

Dr. Gerald Davidson, M.D., met Joe Ricci in
1970, and they founded Elan School that same year.
In 1970, Ricci met a child psychiatrist named Gerald Davidson, who specialized in adolescent "behavior modification" programs, especially in regards to drug abuse and criminal versatility. This subject fascinated Ricci, and he and Davidson soon decided to establish their own "alternative school" for troubled teens.

While Davidson may have been motivated by a genuine desire to help steer troubled kids back onto the right path, it is abundantly clear that Joe Ricci's motivations were not altruistic in any sense. Ricci's motivations, as always, were little more than money and power.

Ricci saw the possibility of running a behavioral school as an opportunity to exert strict dominance and power over others without the law taking an interest in his activities. It was, in the end, a perfect loophole for Ricci to set his sadistic fantasies into action.

This was evident enough even by the location that Ricci chose to establish his new school. He chose the state of Maine because they had the least strict laws regarding such facilities in the entire Northeastern region of the United States. Ricci would be able to create his own totalitarian empire, with little worry of the state taking action against him.

The Birth of "Elan"

In 1974, Ricci and Davidson set up camp in the small, rural town of Poland, Maine, and, in the middle of the dense Maine wilderness, Ricci purchased a 33-acre area of land with an old hunting lodge, cleared out the property, and constructed a series of trailers and buildings to serve as his new "behavioral modification" school.

Ricci named the institution "Elan", a word meaning "energy" or "enthusiasm". Using his skillful charm - a trait that had proved very beneficial to him in the past - Ricci managed to construct a veil of legitimacy surrounding this new school of his, painting it as a source of salvation for a troubled child.

The main building of Elan School, the "behavioral institution" which Joe Ricci and Gerald Davidson founded

Ricci billed Elan School as a radical new treatment center that would "correct", rather than punish, bad behavior by teens. Ricci painted himself as a "mentor" of sorts, who would guide troubled kids back onto the right path towards leading productive, better lives. Everything at Elan, Ricci said, was geared towards helping troubled teens reintegrate into society.

Ricci's sales pitch was extremely successful. Within one year, Elan's enrollment grew from four children to more than 100. Parents of troubled teens, as well as juvenile court judges, began sending youngsters to Elan from all across the United States.

But Elan's true purpose was far more sinister. It was structured less like a school or rehabilitation center and more like a totalitarian cult, a cult centered around abuse, rigid discipline, and dehumanization. It was, in the end, a window into Joe Ricci's evil, putrid, and twisted soul - a window into a scene of Hell itself.

Those who suffered the greatest in Elan were its students. The children, usually between the ages of 12 and 18, came from all sorts of different backgrounds. Some were orphans sent by guardians who couldn't take care of them. Others were juvenile offenders, ordered to enroll in Elan as part of a criminal sentence. Some were the heirs of multi-millionaires, who were enticed by the idea of a boarding school in the middle of the woods, and some were kids who had been having academic trouble.

And then there were those who were neither troubled kids, outlaws, or school dropouts. They were depressed, suicidal, or, worse, simply misunderstood. These kids suffered from mental illness, chronic depression, or autism spectrum disorder. They were sent to Elan solely because they were different, because they couldn't fit in with others, and because their parents and guardians believed that their condition was merely a behavioral "phase" that could be "cured" with rigid discipline.

This was the most disturbing aspect of Elan's enrollment. These autistic or mentally ill children needed support and treatment. They needed to be understood and loved. But, blinded by ignorance and convinced that aggressive "therapy" could somehow change who their kids were, the parents of these youngsters instead sent them off to Elan - the worst place they could possibly go to.

None of the teens enrolled in Elan deserved the horrors and the cruelty that awaited them. But the students who were no more than socially awkward teens - and who already lived extremely difficult lives with autism, mental illness, chronic depression, or schizophrenia - they deserved it the least.

Legalized Kidnapping

The horrors of Elan School were so extensive and so intricate that they began even before a student would enter the institution's campus. They involved secrecy, dishonesty, and, in some cases, outright deception.

First, the parents of a supposedly troubled teen would come across one of Elan's many advertisements, often in a newspaper or by mail. The parents of this teen would read about how Elan's "revolutionary" style of therapy was designed to radically change a troubled teen from a social deviant to an upstanding citizen. Certainly, this was an appealing message to parents who were concerned about their children's troublesome behavior.

Elan School ran numerous glowing ads touting their "revolutionary" form of  behavioral "therapy" for troubled teens.
Such ads enticed parents and social workers to send troubled children to Elan for "treatment"

The parents would then contact the staff at Elan School and arrange to send their children there in order to undergo this "behavioral therapy". Each child would earn the school about $50,000 - $60,000 dollars, so Ricci went to great lengths to encourage parents to send their children to Elan.

Often times, the teens would not be notified of this decision. They would have no say or choice whatsoever. And, because Elan's enrollment process hinged on the element of surprise, the school went to horrific lengths to ensure the teens attended school.

Once everything was in place, Elan would hire a "Teen Escort Company" to literally abduct the teenager in the middle of the night from their bedroom and bring them to the school.
(Such companies are not only legal, but they still exist today!)

The men would break into the teen's bedroom, physically subdue him, tie him up with plastic handcuffs, throw him into a van, and then drive him to Poland, Maine, where he would be handed over to the Elan School.

Such experiences often traumatized the teens who were abducted. For all they knew at first, they were being taken by criminals to be held for ransom, tortured, or, worse, killed. For the girls, it was even more terrifying. Some girls later recalled that they believed they were going to be raped, sexually assaulted, and murdered by their abductors.

One certainly cannot blame the kids for thinking this way. Such practices had all the hallmarks of a violent kidnapping.

Actually, that was exactly what it was.

The Devil's Academy: Life Inside Elan School

From the beginning, Elan was crafted to dehumanize and demoralize the students who went there, seeking to destroy their sense of human dignity and turn them into little more than obedient slaves. This would be achieved through an abhorrent style of psychological warfare. Everything about Elan, even its location, was crafted around this.

Elan was located down a long dirt road in the middle of the Maine wilderness, completely cut off from the rest of society and far away from civilization. The school itself was made up of little more than dilapidated trailers and buildings. It looked menacing, intimidating, and evil. Many former students still recall the feeling of dread that came over them when they first saw the school.

The outside of one of Elan's buildings

Many times, these teens would try to run as soon as they saw the school. But burly guards waited in the woods around Elan, waiting to seize any escapees. They were not afraid to get violent with the students. If anything, they took sadistic pleasure in getting physical with fleeing kids.

This, too, was intended to dehumanize the students of Elan. It ingrained into their minds that they were no longer human beings with basic rights. They were prisoners, captives, and hostages to the school. They had no rights. They were powerless. They were slaves for Elan, and nothing more.
In fact, it was Joe Ricci who put it best when he was interviewed by NBC News in 1979.

"At Elan, the first thing you learn is that you're not gonna get out of here.", said Joe Ricci. "No matter how many times you run away, we will go and get you."

Once a teen was brought to Elan, the first phase of dehumanization would begin. The student would be forced into a shower where, with no privacy, he would be forced to undress and give all clothes and valuables to the school. He would be presented with "No Image" clothes; bland, colorless clothing that erased all sense of individuality.

It was here that Elan began to really demonstrate its cult-like structure. Much like the cults of Aum Shinrikyo and Heaven's Gate, Elan School sought to erase the past lives of its students, mold them into mindless, obedient servants, and permanently cut them off from the outside world.

Each new initiate would be sorted into a house and assigned a "Big Brother" - an older student who would act as a sort of guide. He would "help" the new student into his new life at Elan, but would also act as a sort of "jailer", enforcing rules and reporting infractions to Elan's leadership. The Big Brother would "educate" his partner about why Elan's program was good for him, and why he was a failure if he did not accept it.

The "Big Brother" was not a friend to his partner. In fact, "Big Brothers" would often play cruel tricks on their companions, pretending that they wanted to run away and then swiftly reporting them to the administrators once their companion agreed to escape with them. Much like what was seen in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, the "Big Brothers" often took sadistic pleasure out of using their superiority against lesser students.

Also like a cult, Elan had a very bizarre, strict social hierarchy. Each hierarchy was subject to different rules and regulations. Everything, from when you could eat to who you could talk to, depended on your position within the hierarchy.

Elan was divided into two "classes" of student: "Strength" students and "Non-Strength" students. Non-strengths were not permitted under any circumstance to talk to other non-strengths. Only strengths could talk to non-strengths.

Another cultist tactic employed by Elan was the physical severing of all ties between the students and the outside world. After arriving at Elan, students had to write a "Guilt Letter" to their parents explaining why they "deserved" to be at Elan and not at home. These letters would be inspected carefully by staff. Usually, students would have to write four or five revisions of the letter before it would be sent home.

While some students could earn the "privilege" of being able to call home once a week, they were still subject to heavy restriction. All phone lines in Elan first went through a switchboard inside a trailer within the complex. An operator controlling the switchboard would connect the student with their parents on the other end of the phone line. Students were given only a short amount of time on the phone, and the entire time the student would be talking, school staff would be listening in on the call.

The trailer at Elan where administrators operated the phone switchboard. It was the only thing connecting Elan's residents to the outside world, and it was heavily monitored.

If the student said anything bad about Elan or tried to inform their parents of the abuse, the operator would immediately disconnect the line and the student would be punished.

Above all, much like Joe Ricci, Elan thrived on absolute dominance and power over others. Every freedom - from when one could use to bathroom, to whether one could look outside, to when one could speak, sit down, shower, eat, or even look at someone else - was taken away. The students were left utterly powerless and subservient to Elan's system of draconian tyranny.

Violating any of Elan's many rules was called "Guilt". All "guilt", no matter how small or insignificant, was punished severely.

Elan's list of forbidden activities were set to an impossibly draconian standard. They included (but were by no means limited to):

*Talking too quietly
*Talking too loudly
*Talking to someone without authorization
*Talking to a non-strength while being a non-strength
*Talking too much
*Not talking enough
*Talking about subjects not Elan-related (this was called "being loose")
*Sex (this meant more than the word implies - for instance, talking to or even looking at someone of the opposite gender was considered "sex")
*Looking at someone of the opposite sex
*Deliberately avoiding looking at someone of the opposite sex
*Being attracted to someone
*Looking outside
*Looking at the floor
*Having "negative" body language
*Reacting to insults
*Slouching or yawning
*Being "sideways"
*Reading or writing (I most certainly would have violated this!)
*Not falling asleep
*Sleeping for too long
*Laughing at a joke made by someone of a higher rank
*Doing poorly on academics
*Feeling tired
*Speaking without permission
*Eating after designated meal times
*Not eating at all
*Going outside without permission
*Rolling your eyes
*Attempting to run away
*Swearing without permission
*Smiling without permission
*Not smiling enough
*Making any sort of physical contact (even shaking hands was forbidden)
*Wearing clothes with "Image"
*Having "bad thoughts"
*Showing or voicing any dissent

These rules were, of course, impossible to follow, and that was essentially the point. Elan's students were set up to break the rules no matter how hard they tried not to. There was no way around it. It was yet another tactic the school used to dehumanize the children.

Often times, students would be ordered to write down their "guilt" on paper - "guilt" such as being attracted to someone (which is quite common for teenagers!) or feeling reluctance at completing tasks.
They had to write down every little private thought in their head - even their most personal fantasies - and show it to the administration, who in turn would use this sensitive information to humiliate or even blackmail them.

Elan erased all sense of privacy and personal business. There were no secrets and there was no confidentiality. All guilt was made public, no matter what it was or how personal it may have been.

And it wasn't like one could commit guilt without being caught, either. All students were constantly under watch by individuals known as "Expeditors" - special teens who acted as guards and carried clipboards listing each student in a designated section of the building. The expeditors would carefully observe individual students for signs of "guilt" and would write down every infraction in a notebook and turn it in to the administration.

An "Expeditor" takes notes on a clipboard while on patrol inside Elan

The clipboards were always full of "infractions" committed by students. Nobody went a day without committing guilt. In fact, if an Expeditor did not report enough guilt to satisfy the administration, he himself could be severely punished.
Yes, in Elan, not listing enough "guilt" was itself guilt!

A clipboard paper where Elan's "Expeditors" would record signs of "guilt" shown by students.
Notice the types of "guilt" listed in the left-side margins.

All guilt - no matter how seemingly insignificant or small - was punished. Usually, the punishment consisted of a group of four other Elan students (called "Dealing Crews") screaming insults and degrading slurs at the unfortunate infractor, but it often got much worse.

Punishments for "guilt" were called "Learning Experiences" or "LE's", and they were built on abject humiliation. Among teenagers, humiliation is depressingly effective at demoralizing and dehumanizing its victims, and Elan took full advantage of this.

These three Elan students (wearing black clothes) were punished by being forced to live in a dumpster full of trash for over two weeks. The boy outside the dumpster is an "Expeditor" acting as a guard.
This picture was discreetly taken by a documentary film team that visited Elan in 1983.

For instance, those who tried to escape from Elan were designated "Split Risks". Split Risks didn't even have to actually attempt to escape. Being sad, looking outside, or even merely thinking about escaping was enough to designate someone a "split risk".
Teens who were designated "split risks" were given shoes without laces and forced to wear bright yellow shirts and skimpy little pink shorts.
If they ran away more than once, they would be forced to wear a pink rabbit suit, walk without any shoes, and wear leg shackles.

A teen who tried to run away from Elan wears leg shackles and a humiliating pink suit as punishment.

Students who did poorly on their academics were forced to wear humiliating signs listing their offenses or giant dunce caps all day long, and they were subjected to verbal abuse by their peers and teachers.

Students at Elan were often forced to wear humiliating signs
as punishment for even the most minor infractions. 

If a student smiled without permission, he or she would be sometimes relegated to "shotdown" duty, where they would be forced to do menial jobs all day long, such as mopping floors, scrubbing trash cans, washing dishes, or cleaning urinals and toilets, sometimes with nothing but a toothbrush.

A girl is punished by being forced to mop floors while wearing a dunce cap.
Such humiliating and degrading punishments were all too common at Elan.

And if a student acted in a way the administration deemed immature, they would be forced to wear diapers over their clothes, put binkies in their mouths, and walk around carrying rattles.

But the worst form of punitive humiliation at Elan was something called a "General Meeting".

If a student committed "guilt", a school administrator would often yell "GENERAL MEETING!", and the entire student body within an individual house would convene in the dining room in front of the unfortunate student. A broomstick would be placed on the floor in front of the infractor, behind which all of the students would gather.

"Get your feelings off!", the administrator would yell.
Then each and every student in the room would launch a screaming, shrieking, deafening torrent of abuse at the unfortunate teen, mocking, degrading, insulting, and screaming their vile, vulgar pejoratives right into his or her face.

"Fuck you!", they would yell at the student. "You're a worthless piece of shit! Who the fuck do you think you are, motherfucker?! We all hate you, you worthless piece of fucking trash! You fucking scumbag!"

This would go on, uninterrupted, for up to 40 minutes. It didn't matter if the teen broke down crying or begged for them to stop. The screaming would continue until the teen was thoroughly, mentally, and emotionally broken. General Meetings were a very common occurrence, happening almost every single day and usually multiple times a day. A day without one was an extreme rarity.

An example of an abusive humiliation session at Elan School, known as a "haircut". "Haircuts" were similar to General Meetings, except they were more orderly. This "haircut" is targeting a 16-year-old girl who was sent to Elan after running away from home, becoming pregnant, and getting an abortion. 
Notice that the girl is wearing a dunce cap as part of the humiliation process.

General Meetings were intended not just to dehumanize and mentally destroy the victim of the abuse, but also the other students who participated in the abuse. Elan turned its students into living weapons. It took away the humanity of the abuser and the abused alike. It destroyed one's sense of self-worth and independence, reducing them to mindless robots controlled by the sadistic deviants who ran the school. Not participating in a "General Meeting" was considered "guilt", and, as always, was a punishable offense.

When students weren't being screamed at during "General Meetings", they would be screamed at in events known as "Encounter Groups" - where the teens would be made to sit in a circle and scream vile insults at each other at the top of their lungs. 

Elan also exerted control over the students through another tactic common with cults: starvation and sleep deprivation. A typical day at Elan was divided into three parts: school, sleep, and "The Program" - the name for Elan's unique brand of "therapy".

Unlike most American schools, which run between 8:00 AM and 3:00 PM, Elan's school classes lasted from 7:00 PM to 11:00 PM. This was not by accident. Joe Ricci understood that teenagers would be much more susceptible to suggestion and easier to control if they were sleep-deprived.

Similarly, while Elan did have designated meal times (called "Meal Kicks") for its students, these meal times were ludicrously short. Officially, they would last between 5-8 minutes, but often times they would last only 1-4 minutes.

Students were served food according to "rank", so many times students wouldn't even have a chance to receive their food before meal times ended.
Eating after meal times ended was considered "guilt" and, like all infractions, was severely punished. Many students would have to go to class hungry, exhausted, and sleep-deprived.

For a facility that claimed to worship education, Elan also left a lot to be desired when it came to academics. School lasted for only four hours, and students were told to grade their own work. There was no music class, art class, or comprehensive curriculum. There were no tests, group projects, or tutors, and the school did not supply any materials such as backpacks, notebooks, or study materials.

As a result, the kids learned very little with regard to academics, and former students reported that they received an equivalent of only a freshman-level high school education. In fact, school was itself considered a "privilege" that Elan's students had to "earn", and, like all privileges, it was often taken away from students for even the most slight infractions.

A class in session at Elan School. Even though Elan had academic accreditation, school only lasted for four hours and had little academic value.
Notice the girl wearing a dunce cap in the background.

After school ended at 11:00 PM, the students would be sent to their rooms, which were military-style barracks with bunk beds. But even then, sleep would often elude the students. Guards called "Night Owls" waited both outside and inside the dorm rooms, shining flashlights across the bunk beds and counting and recounting the students to ensure none of them had run away. Sometimes they would yank back the bed sheets to ensure a student was still there.

Getting a good night's sleep at Elan was next to impossible, as was any chance of escape. Guards waited in the hall, on the grounds, and in the surrounding woods. Nobody could get away.

A bunk bed in one of Elan's buildings.

And all of this was to say nothing of the rampant sexual abuse within Elan. While many details still remain scant, several former residents of Elan - both former students and staff - have been accused of committing horrific acts of sexual abuse against the teens enrolled in the school.

Numerous girls have come forward alleging that they were raped, sexually assaulted, or molested by Elan's staff. The stories give an insight into the horrors that went on in Elan while the administration ignored or, worse, participated in the acts.

One girl said that, when she was 15, she was raped and brutalized behind one of the school's trailers by Elan resident Ronnie Evans. Evans also allegedly raped another female classmate in the woods while enrolled at the school. Despite being "disciplined" for these acts, Evans was never charged with a crime and, in fact, was made a staff member by Elan just months later.

In another instance, a male staff member at Elan exposed himself in front of a female student, repeatedly asking her what she "felt" about it. The staff member told the teen that this was part of her "rehabilitation" process, calling it "love therapy".

Even Joe Ricci was accused of committing sex crimes against the students at Elan. According to a former Elan resident, Ricci was known to have numerous inappropriate relationships with the young girls enrolled in the school. One girl later testified that, while on an outing with Joe Ricci, she was raped by another student. After the girl reported the incident to the police, Ricci attempted to threaten the girl into recanting her story, but when she refused, Ricci had the girl subjected to repeated General Meetings, verbal abuse, and months in isolation as punishment.

Other times, Ricci would allegedly facilitate sexual abuse. A former resident by the name of "Stephen"  recalled an incident in which he said Ricci locked two teenage girls in a room with two boys who had criminal records for rape. Ricci told the boys to "do what you want" with the girls, who were then violently sexually assaulted. The same resident claimed the girls were forced to stay in the locked room with their assailants for several weeks, enduring repeated abuse again and again.

Nightmarish doesn't even begin to describe life at Elan. It was the closest thing to Hell on Earth.

Verbal and mental abuse was one of Elan's most feared weapons. But it was by no means the only one in their arsenal. If a student somehow managed to put up with being mercilessly degraded and insulted by his peers, he would face the ultimate punishment that Elan could offer, a punishment that was representative of the foundations of evil that Elan was built on.

The Ring

If a student crossed the administration the wrong way, or if the administration felt that the abject humiliation suffered through "General Meetings" was unsatisfactory, the school would resort to physical punishment. Like with General Meetings, the school forced the students to administer physical punishment to each other. 

Sometimes a teen would be told to bend over while every single student spanked him hard with a ping-pong paddle. Often times, the more sadistic administrators would drill holes into the paddles in order to draw blood during the spankings.

Other times, students who "acted crazy" were forced to wear straitjackets for days, or would be locked in a small room (called "The Corner") for weeks or even months, where they were forced to sit up straight and face the wall or be physically beaten. They could only urinate or defecate in a bucket in the room - a bucket which would sometimes be emptied onto their head.

Similarly, the teens would be subjected to "Electric Sauce" - a treatment consisting of having a bucket filled with trash, urine, cigarettes, mustard, dirty water, ketchup, rotten food, and human feces poured over their head.

"If you're gonna act like a baby, then you will get treated like a baby.", said Ricci. "If you're gonna act like a criminal, then you will get treated like a criminal."

But the worst punishment a student could be subjected to was the punishment known as "The Ring".
"The Ring" was a feared punishment in Elan. If a student drew the wrath of the administration, he would be forced to physically fight the other students. Sometimes, a teen would even have to fight his "Big Brother".

And Elan was careful to ensure that the teens were angry and itching for violence before they competed in "The Ring". For instance, if a "Non-Strength" was caught trying to escape, his "Big Brother" would be punished by being forced to do manual labor. This was part of an effort to anger the "Big Brother" so that he would be more willing to fight his companion in "The Ring".

Elan took full advantage of its students' misery when it came to physical punishment. Through the harsh lifestyle they forced teens to live, Elan would instill a boiling rage within each student, repressing and repressing their violent urges until they could hold it in no longer. Then, the school would force the students to channel their rage and anger at Elan into rage and anger against each other. It was an intricate, horrific tactic of vile, inhuman abuse.

In "The Ring", fights were advertised as entertainment, with moderators and umpires giving play-by-play updates on the matches as if they were sportscasters covering football games. Some administrators even cast bets on individual matches and wagered money on how many opponents a student could fight before being beaten.

In a typical match, the punished student (called "the Bully") would be given boxing gloves and a mouth guard and would be surrounded by the entire student body of Elan, who would be jeering, insulting, and degrading him with vile comments and pejoratives. The "bully" would be forced to literally fistfight numerous other opponents in front of his peers.

Two Elan students fight in "The Ring" as other teens and staff goad them on.

The "Bully" was not allowed time to rest; however, his opponents always could. If one opponent got tired or beaten up, he would step out and another would take his place. This way, the "Bully" would always have an unending stream of opponents to box. Pretty soon, he would be bloodied and beaten senseless, but even then the matches wouldn't end.

The "Bully" would continue being pummeled and pounded by numerous angry, repressed, and rage-filled opponents goaded on by the administration and the other students. If he was unable to stand, other students would hold up the "Bully" so that he could continue being punched repeatedly by his opponents.

"Yeah! Beat his ass!", the students would cheer and laugh. "Fuck him up! Waste the little bitch!".

If an opponent had a pang of conscience and refused to participate in this brutality, he would be punished with a "General Meeting" or - worse - have the other opponents turn on him. In Elan, everyone had to participate in the abuse of their peers. It was designed to destroy their dignity and humanity, and turn them into living, breathing weapons.

"The Ring" was by no means limited to boys. Girls - reportedly even some who were pregnant - were forced to fight as well, sometimes with other boys, and they would be beaten just as badly.
Under Ricci's authority, nobody was safe from such abuse. Everyone had to be punished.

The brutality of "The Ring" took a terrible toll on the students. Many suffered permanent brain damage from the fights, and countless others suffered long-term post-traumatic stress disorder. But that was not all. In 1982, the abuse of "The Ring" took the life of a 15-year-old student named Phil Williams.

Williams had come from a broken family. When Williams was 9, his father was sent to prison after beating his wife with a pipe, leaving her brain-damaged and vegetative. As a result, Williams grew up in foster care with his sister, and he was sent to Elan because of his constant fits of rage.

15-year-old Phil Williams was
beaten to death during one of Elan's
brutal corporal punishment sessions
in "The Ring".
In Elan, Williams drew the wrath of the administration for talking back to staff. On December 27th, 1982, he was put in "The Ring" and was beaten so badly that he ended up dying. The school told Williams' family that he had died of a "brain aneurysm" and no charges were ever filed against the administrators.

Williams was an innocent child. He had been thrust into a cruel world through no fault of his own, and, rather than getting treatment for his trauma, he was sent to the worst place possible for someone in his position.

Williams' death is indicative of how evil Elan really was. It wasn't a treatment facility. It wasn't a rehabilitation center. It was a place of horrors, abuse, and inhumanity, all perpetrated at the hands of an evil psychopath who had no qualms about the lifelong damage he was inflicting on young children.

And the worst part was that he was doing it without ever breaking a single law. In fact, despite the horrific death of Phil Williams, Elan would continue to use "The Ring" as a form of punishment until 2001.

Ignorance: How the Media and the Law Ignored the Abuse at Elan

Abuse, inhumanity, dehumanization, and torture. For decades, this was daily life at Elan. On average, a student in Elan would have to endure 17 months of this hellish life, but some students remained at Elan for up to 3-4 years, enduring daily beatings, humiliation, and abuse at the hands of their peers and the school staff.

This wasn't due to a lack of oversight. Everything Joe Ricci did at Elan was completely legal. Unethical, certainly, but still perfectly, completely legal.

The state of Maine knew full well what was occurring at Elan School, and they did nothing to stop it. Although Maine authorities opened a total of 11 investigations into abuse at Elan, none of them ever resulted in criminal charges, and no action was ever taken against the school's administration.

This wasn't because they found no abuse at Elan. The horrific stories of what was happening at the school were widespread and corroborated by dozens of eyewitnesses. Rather, it was because there was nothing going on at Elan that violated any state law. The beatings, the verbal and mental abuse, the corporal punishment, the humiliation - all of it was 100% legal.

Usually, if the law refuses to put an end to unethical practices by such institutions, the public and the victims turn to the press. Bad publicity has often been enough to force an institution to change its behavior or, better yet, go out of business. The media, as always, has been a valuable asset when it comes to exposing such inhumanity and bringing the spotlight on unethical practices.
Joe Ricci is interviewed in 1983 by a PBS
documentary team making a film about troubled teens.

But the media also failed to do their job when it came to Elan. Though major news networks like NBC News and CBS did feature Elan School in high-profile special reports throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, they never highlighted the scale of the abuse that was going on there. If anything, the media bought into Joe Ricci's lie that such practices were little more than a form of "radical therapy".

In 1979, NBC News broadcast a special report about Elan School and visited the campus to talk to staff, students, and even Joe Ricci himself. Though the news outlet voiced some concern regarding the tactics used by Elan on its students, NBC constantly reassured its audience that these treatments were intended to "help, not harm" the children. In fact, they titled their report "For The Child's Own Good", and painted Ricci and Elan as mentors and teachers seeking to "rehabilitate" troubled teens.

The nationally-syndicated CBS program 60 Minutes also aired a segment about Joe Ricci and Elan School. Like the NBC News report, 60 Minutes painted Elan and its founder in a positive light, calling them practitioners of a "revolutionary new type of therapy" that could steer troubled teens back onto the right path.

Joe Ricci himself also carefully ensured that Elan's reputation was untarnished. He produced pamphlets with glowing praise from child psychologists highlighting the "major success rate" of Elan's program, and he put himself into the public spotlight in order to win approval and status among the population.

Ricci also used his money and power to influence the legal system to his benefit. Ricci was known to arrange incentives for juvenile court judges to refer offenders to Elan by offering them bonuses of $10,000 or more if they sent young offenders to his school.
Again, as unethical and corrupt as this practice was, it was still not illegal.

In 1986 and 1998, Joe Ricci put himself into the political spotlight, and ran (unsuccessfully) for governor of Maine as a Democrat. Ricci painted himself as an "outsider" who spoke for the "working people" against the influence of "big business".
"That's why I'm a Democrat - determined that the party of the working people works for you", said Ricci in a campaign ad.

Joe Ricci speaks at a convention during his 1986 campaign for governor of Maine.
Though he did not win the nomination, Ricci's campaigns won him public approval and helped him craft a distorted public image of himself.

Ricci's claim of him fighting against "big business" was quite ironic, considering he was a multi-millionaire and owned a for-profit school and a racetrack. Furthermore, as much as Ricci claimed to love the "working people", he was known to be abusive to his employees and he clamped down hard on labor unions. Ricci's campaigns, like everything in his life, were built on lies and deception.

Much like he did with Elan School, Ricci meticulously crafted an appealing public image of himself to conceal the horrific evil that lurked beneath the veil.

The Slowly-Growing Resistance

While Maine authorities and the media failed to do their part in bringing an end to Elan, some individual survivors, sympathetic officials, and even concerned citizens pitched in to help do whatever they could to bring attention to the school.

In 1979, a district in Massachusetts was the first to ban sending children to Elan, citing the abusive and cruel treatment that the school used. In Illinois, state officials pulled a teen out of Elan in response to the allegations of maltreatment, and cautioned parents about sending their children there.

There were also individuals in Maine who did their part to help save children from the abuse, sometimes even going against orders to do what they knew to be right.

One 16-year-old boy who escaped from Elan in 1979 was discovered by a police officer hiding at a nearby apartment complex. The boy had managed to escape the school in the middle of the night, elude the school's search parties (called "Posses"), and run more than 15 miles through the wilderness until he reached civilization.

The officer on the scene, Lt. Max Ashburn, knew that he was supposed to return the teen back to Elan, but, seeing the bruises on the boy's body, and seeing the fear in the teen's eyes, he ultimately decided to go against orders. Ashburn drove the boy to a truckstop in Auburn, Maine, where he could hitchhike back home, and let him go.

But not all runaways were so lucky, even if they did manage to escape the search parties. After all, they were young teens with nowhere to go and no place to stay. Often times, they would find themselves in even more perilous situations.

17-year-old Dawn Marie Birnbaum managed to run
away from Elan School in 1993 -
only to be raped and murdered
by a trucker while hitchhiking back home
One runaway, 15-year-old Brad Glickman, also managed to escape Elan and evade the search parties, only to be shot and killed in a street fight in Norway, Maine, a few days later.

Another runaway, 17-year-old Dawn Marie Birnbaum, who had run away from Elan numerous times earlier, finally managed to escape the school for good in 1993 and flee to Pennsylvania, where she hitched a ride with a trucker named James Robert Cruz. Dawn hoped to make it to Mississippi where she thought her boyfriend, John Hoffpauir, was living.

In the end, however, Cruz violently raped and sexually assaulted Dawn, strangled the teenager to death, and tossed her body into a snowbank off the side of a major highway. To add to the tragedy, it was also later revealed that, unknown to Dawn, John Hoffpauir had gone missing just months earlier and was presumed dead.

As brutal as Dawn Birnbaum's death was, it actually had the positive side effect of shedding new light on the unethical practices of Elan School. What, people asked, could possess a girl to run away so many times from a school in the middle of the woods, far away from her home, and knowingly put herself in so much danger? How bad was the environment that she was escaping from?

Although resistance to Elan was slowly building, Joe Ricci did all he could to keep the school's reputation untarnished. Ricci convinced newspapers to write glowing articles about Elan's supposed high rate of success, and tried to divert attention away from the abuse occurring at the school.

But Ricci would soon see Elan thrust into the national spotlight when a high-profile murder case in Connecticut would come to prominently feature Elan and even Joe Ricci himself. It would spell the beginning of the end of Elan, but the fight was far from over.

The Beginning of the End: Thomas Skakel and the Martha Moxley Case

On October 30th, 1975, in the Belle Haven suburb of the wealthy town of Greenwich, Connecticut, a 15-year-old girl named Martha Moxley was hanging out with a group of fellow teenagers, playing pranks, throwing toilet paper at houses, and flirting with the boys. It was the day before Halloween - "Mischief Night" - and Moxley wanted to join in on the fun.

Sometime that night, Moxley left the group and wandered off into the neighborhood with a boy named Thomas Skakel. She never returned home.
The 1975 murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley
made national headlines after one of her friends,
Michael Skakel, was charged with her death more
than 20 years later.
Skakel had been enrolled at Elan School and the trial
had the unintended side effect of thrusting Elan
into the public spotlight.

The following morning, the Moxley family found Martha's body lying underneath a tree in their backyard. She had been bludgeoned with a six-iron golf club until it broke, and her assailant had used the broken pieces to stab her to death. Although Martha had not been raped, her pants and underwear had been pulled down to her ankles, and there was evidence of sexual assault.

Suspicion turned to Thomas Skakel, as he was the last person to see Moxley alive, but he was never charged, and the case languished and eventually went cold.

In 1978, Thomas Skakel's brother, 18-year-old Michael Skakel, was sent to Elan School after being arrested for drunk driving. While at Elan, Michael Skakel allegedly bragged about killing Moxley, telling two other students that he had bludgeoned the 15-year-old girl to death, had pulled off her clothes and touched her sexually, and had masturbated near her body.

These facts were not made aware to police for another 20 years. In January of 2000, the state of Connecticut charged Michael Skakel with the murder of Martha Moxley. Because Skakel was a nephew of the late Robert F. Kennedy, the case made national news.

Because the case against Skakel was almost entirely based off of the testimony of his classmates at Elan, Skakel and his attorneys put Elan School in the spotlight. Although it was Skakel, not Elan School, that was on trial, Ricci saw his school gain national attention, and, unlike the laudations he had received from the press in the 1970s and 1980s, this attention was very negative.

For the first time, the abusive history of Elan School was publicized and reported on by the media. The public learned of the living hell that Michael Skakel had gone through at the school. He had spent two years there, and had been beaten, abused, and forced to fight numerous times in "The Ring". He had run away twice and had been recaptured both times, after which he was humiliated and severely punished.

While the defense was using these stories in an attempt to gain sympathy for Skakel, it had the secondary effect of raising public awareness about the horrific evils that were going on at Elan. What's more, these accusations were now being publicized in the age of the Internet. Former students at Elan found in the Internet a platform from which to tell their stories to the entire world. 
On chat rooms and web sites, these survivors published their unique stories about the systemic abuse that they had endured at the hands of Joe Ricci and Elan's administration. Suddenly, the ugliness of Elan was no longer so hidden. The abuse was no longer so secret.

For the first time, Joe Ricci found his veil of deception starting to fall apart. In the past, secrecy had worked in his favor. Individual survivors had been unable to spread their messages far and wide, and the reputation of Elan School had remained mostly untarnished. But now, with the Internet as a medium, every single story was published on a world stage for all to see.

The Downfall of Elan

As the true horrors of Elan began to be revealed, Ricci went on the offensive. In order to quell the bad publicity surrounding Elan, Ricci decided to publicly come to the defense of Michael Skakel. Ricci publicly denied that Skakel had ever confessed to the murder while at Elan, dismissing such accusations as "absurd". Ricci wasn't doing this because he believed Skakel to be innocent - rather, he was doing this to try and keep public attention away from Elan and focused on Skakel.

But Ricci's attempts were ultimately in vain. Two classmates of Skakel's from Elan later testified that Skakel had confessed to the murder while at the school. Again, while Elan was not the subject of the trial, they found themselves thrust into the public spotlight as a result.

Ricci did his best to quell the notoriety that was now beginning to surround Elan. He flouted Elan's "high success rate" and highlighted the fact that no investigations against his school had resulted in any charges. But Ricci's money and power could not silence the growing voices of Elan's survivors. They exposed Ricci for who he really was: a lying, sadistic psychopath who abused, not cured, children.

But Joe Ricci would soon find himself in a whole different kind of trouble - a trouble that neither he nor his manipulative ego would be able to silence. In June of 2000, Ricci was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer, likely a product of his addiction to cigarettes. The egomaniacal, sadistic multi-millionaire who had once appeared invincible was now suddenly bedridden with a terminal illness. His destructive lifestyle had caught up with him.

Ricci was put on aggressive chemotherapy, but it was no use. The cancer had already spread throughout his body, and there was nothing doctors could do. For perhaps the first time in his life, Joe Ricci was now powerless and alone, stripped of his seeming invincibility, and left with nothing to do but settle his affairs and await his inevitable fate.

That wait was not a long one. On January 29th, 2001, barely seven months after his diagnosis, Joseph J. Ricci died in a hospital in Portland, Maine, from complications resulting from his lung cancer. He was 54 years old. It was a miserable end for an even more miserable man. Ricci's remains were later cremated and the ashes scattered.

After Ricci's death, his second wife, Sharon Terry, took over as the head of Elan School. But Terry had inherited quite a mess from Ricci, and she now had to face the wrath of dozens of former Elan students, hell-bent on publicizing their stories and putting an end to Elan's inhumanity for good.

Death by Reddit: The End of Elan School

Once Sharon Terry took over Elan School after the death of Joe Ricci, she began working hard to clean up the mess that Ricci had left behind. With Elan's history of abuse and mistreatment now being made public through the internet, Terry had to make sure the school's public image would remain untarnished.

Furthermore, as the trial of Michael Skakel went on, numerous former Elan residents testified in court on Skakel's behalf, recalling how life in Elan consisted of daily beatings, humiliation, sleep deprivation, and public dehumanization.

In an attempt to pacify the school's critics, Sharon Terry implemented a few reforms. In late 2001, she abolished the use of "The Ring". Corporal punishment, however, was still used at Elan, as were "General Meetings" and other forms of mental torture. Even after Skakel was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the Moxley murder*, the controversy around Elan did not die. It continued to grow in strength and volume, as more and more survivors turned to the internet to spread their stories.

*(Skakel's murder conviction was ultimately vacated in 2018 and he was released from prison. Prosecutors have not yet sought a retrial)

Soon, state officials around the country began to take notice of the growing controversy surrounding Elan School. In 2007, the New York State Education Department produced a scathing report that criticized Elan's use of physical punishment and sleep deprivation. Although they had once paid tuition for special education students to attend the school, the NYSED decided to withdraw funding from Elan due to the abuse.

But Elan's ultimate downfall would not be due to state officials, but, in fact, the internet.

A thread on Reddit created by a former Elan student.
Social media networks like Reddit helped
 publicize the abusive nature of Elan School, ultimately
leading to its downfall
In 2005, an internet forum website called Reddit was founded, and it quickly became popular across the web. Although much of Reddit was devoted to little more than memes and jokes, survivors of Elan found in Reddit a way to spread their messages even further than before. Using Reddit as a base of operation, survivors started discussions (called "threads") on forums about Elan School, spreading awareness of the abusive practices and sharing their stories of the horrors they had undergone while at the school.

By 2010, Reddit was home to dozens of forums where former students discussed their horror stories about Elan School. They organized petitions and told people to call their representatives and urge them to take action to shut down Elan and put an end to the abuse.

Elan fought against this notoriety with all its might, but, in the end, they could not stand up against the organized resistance forces and activists that had gathered on the internet.

With the bad publicity, Elan found itself receiving fewer and fewer students and coming under more and more scrutiny by not just government agencies but also the public and, more importantly, the mainstream media.

Despite the now overwhelmingly negative publicity surrounding Elan, the school never faced any action by state or federal agencies regarding its abusive practices. In 2011, as Elan's public notoriety reached its peak, the school's accreditation was actually renewed by Maine officials despite petitions and demands from the public to shut down the institution.

But, even though they were exempt from legal consequence, the public pressure on Elan proved to be too much for Sharon Terry. The damage to the school's reputation was beyond repair.

On March 23rd, 2011, just 22 days after being re-accredited by the state of Maine, Sharon Terry announced that Elan School would be closing down. The notoriety was simply too great for the school to continue operating.

Nevertheless, Terry denied all the allegations of abuse against Elan, and maintained that she and the school were innocent victims of a public frame-up.

"The school has been the target of harsh and false attacks spread over the internet", she said, "with the avowed purpose of forcing the school to close".
"We have been vindicated numerous times", Terry added, "but the school has, unfortunately, been unable to survive the damage".

On April 1st, 2011, after dismissing the few remaining students it still had, Elan School officially closed its doors for good.

For more than 41 years, Joe Ricci and the school administration had been able to keep Elan safe from law enforcement, state agencies, and legal action.
But Ricci had never anticipated that his downfall, and the downfall of his school, would come not from law enforcement but, ironically, from the very teens he claimed to "cure".

The survivors, in the end, were the ones who were finally able to put an end to the inhuman horrors of Elan School.

But everything that Elan represented - the abuse, the inhumanity, the sadism, the cruelty, and the humiliation - is far from dead.

The Ghosts of Elan: The "Troubled Teen" Industry and Legalized Child Abuse

Today, the Elan School is no more. The 33-acre property in Poland, Maine, where the school was once located now consists of little more than abandoned buildings, decaying trailers, and overgrown dirt roads.

But even today, the trauma that Elan induced is still very much alive in those who were once there. At least 39 former students of Elan have committed suicide since 1975, and many others live with the lifelong repercussions of the abuse they endured. Several former students have been convicted of crimes ranging from arson to murder. Others have suffered from mental and social problems, unable to hold down jobs or relationships. Even those who did manage to lead successful, productive lives still suffer from the mental trauma that Elan inflicted upon them.

Ben Weasel, the founder of the popular punk-rock band Screeching Weasel, was sent to Elan School as a teen, where he endured more than two years of abuse and dehumanization. Even though Weasel has since gone on to become a successful, famous musician and multi-millionaire, to this day he suffers from chronic anxiety, panic attacks, and agoraphobia - a condition where a person feels as if they are trapped or imprisoned with no way to escape.

Furthermore, the administrators who ran Elan and sanctioned the brutal abuse of its students are all still free. Nobody - no staff member, no teacher, and no administrator - ever faced any criminal charges in connection with the cruelty that occurred at Elan School. To this day, they live as free citizens, unpunished for the abhorrent crimes they committed against children for more than four decades.

But the worst thing may be that the industry that gave birth to Elan is far from dead. Even though Elan School is gone for good, there are many similar "behavioral institutions" still operating across the United States. Much like Elan, these schools utilize "teen escort companies" to abduct teens and bring them to their facilities, and like Elan, these schools engage in controversial, dehumanizing, and abusive behavior towards their students.

These schools, like Elan, are subject to very little, if any, regulation.
It is important to remember that Elan did not close because it violated any laws. It was not shut down, it was closed down. Everything the school did - the kidnappings, the abuse, the cruelty, and the humiliation - was legal, and it still is. The troubled teens who are sent to these institutions are subject to the same abuse, cruelty, and humiliation that made Elan School infamous.

It is long past time to institute common-sense regulations on these behavioral schools. For too long, they have engaged in legalized child abuse without repercussions. There are real lives on the line here. Teens have died as a result of such treatment at the hands of these schools.
14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson died in 2006
after being forced to run in circles
in 100-degree weather at a behavioral school in Florida.
 Like Elan, behavioral schools in the United States
operate with impunity
and are subject to very little regulation

Back in 2006, for instance, a 14-year-old boy named Martin Anderson, who was enrolled in a behavioral school in Florida, died after being beaten, forced to breath ammonia, and made to run in circles in 100-degree weather by school administrators.

Six staff members were charged with negligent homicide for Anderson's death, but all six staff members were acquitted by a jury.

Of course, this doesn't mean that we need to totally shut down all behavioral schools. Sometimes, aggressive therapy is needed to treat certain children. But abuse is never a proper way to correct a child's behavior and it is long past time that we put some  common-sense regulations on these institutions.

What Elan did may not have been criminal, but it certainly should have been. Elan destroyed lives. It damaged children instead of curing them. It engaged not in therapy, but in child abuse. And it did so without breaking so much as a single law.

The problem with Elan wasn't a lack of oversight. The 11 investigations into the school make that quite evident. The problem with Elan was a lack of regulation. There were simply no laws forbidding the abuse that Elan engaged in, and that's why the school was never shut down by the government. Everything Joe Ricci did was 100% legal, and it absolutely shouldn't have been.

During the Obama administration, we actually saw some signs of hope. President Obama's Department of Education instituted more strict regulations on private schools and behavioral institutions in response to systemic problems surrounding corporal punishment and racial bias in these facilities. These regulations weren't much, but they were a good start.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has rolled back these Obama-era restrictions on private schools. Under the leadership of Education Secretary Betsy Devos, a former charter school advocate, private schools have once again been able to operate with little restrictions on what they can do to their students, and the Department of Education has, for the most part, declined to enforce the few remaining regulations on these institutions.

This is very dangerous and detrimental to not just the core values of the Department of Education, but also to the development of our children. We are supposed to give children nourishment, not neglect. We are supposed to encourage children, not dehumanize them. We are supposed to help children become valuable members of society, not abuse them and turn them into weapons to use against each other for our own amusement.

Elan School is gone, yes. But the systemic problems that enabled Elan still exist. And, until we change these systemic problems, and institute some meaningful regulations in order to prevent the abuse, the dehumanization, and the horrors that Elan inflicted upon its students, this fight will never be over.

Our children are our future. They will soon have the world in their hands. We have to ask ourselves some questions: What kind of children do we want to inherit the earth? What are the values we want them to hold dear? What messages do we want to send to our children about how the world works?

If we fail to implement meaningful regulations to put an end to the abusive "troubled teen" industry, we will be sending the wrong message. We will be telling our children that we do not care for them, and that abuse and violence are appropriate ways to resolve problems. We will be raising damaged souls, and damaged souls cannot be our future.

If we do not bravely stand up and speak out for what is morally, ethically, and fundamentally right - if we do not speak out against injustice and cruelty in the world, especially when it involves kids - we will have failed ourselves and, more importantly, our own children.


A special thanks to "Joe Nobody", an Elan School survivor who has produced a webcomic about his experiences at the institution. Joe's information proved invaluable to the production of this article, and provided me with crucial details regarding the abuse and humiliation that the students of Elan had to endure on a daily basis.

I encourage my readers to read Joe's webcomic here or follow him on Instagram here.


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