Inside Utah’s $300 million therapeutic boarding school industry

Lochlain Steere, Staff Writer

“The names of interviewees in this article have been changed to ensure anonymity. Any correlation between the names and existing students is purely coincidental.”

Utah is home to more than 100 therapeutic boarding schools, which is triple the national average across the United States. For a price usually between $1,500 to $12,000 a month, parents can send their child away for an average stay lasting from 9 to 18 months.

The abundance of private boarding schools in Utah results from the leeway in the education requirements imposed by the state. The special education requirements are vague and general, the only qualification in Utah being “[a] State Director of Special Education [who] is responsible for the general supervision of all public programs offered through private agencies.” Whereas California law states that “nonpublic, nonsectarian schools are certified by the California Department of Education,” and “private schools serving exceptional need students under a state contract must comply with state provisions governing the suspension of pupils and the use of behavioral interventions.”

There are also differences in the regulations regarding student safety. California requires all applicants who will be working with minors to obtain criminal record summaries; in Utah this is optional. California also encourages inclusion in Child Abuse Prevention Coordinating Councils while Utah has no policies concerning nursing and health.

I was able to speak with one student, Megan, over the phone during a three-day visit from her family. Not yet halfway through an average stay at one of the schools, Megan was still in disbelief of her environment every morning when waking up. “I just feel really trapped and just want this to be over… and I want to be an adult already,” she said. She continued about how upsetting and traumatic the experiences of witnessing other student’s problems, like self-harm, were for her wellbeing.

Hunter, a student who after more than nine months is a graduate of a boarding school program in Utah, spoke about the events leading up to them being taken against their will. While expecting to be awake early in the morning to return home after visiting family out of state, Hunter said, “These two fat women come in the door… and they hand me this note… from my mom. It’s like a whole page [and] she’s like, we’re sending you away.” Hunter highlighted how broken and distrusting the experience had left them, and the mindset they had upon their arrival at the school.

At these schools, parents hope to find a place of healing and self-discovery for their children. One of the schools brands itself as a place for adolescents to “unlock their potential through creativity, intensive therapeutic modalities, and expressive therapy groups,” while another focuses on inspiring positive qualities in its students. Their website says, “By hiring confident, accomplished, and compassionate women, [they] inspire the development of these same qualities in [their] students.”

When Hunter arrived, they were immersed into a much different high school environment from their previous school. The boarding school relied more heavily on different forms of therapy groups with school academics as a second priority. “Some of them are process groups, so you can just process your feelings talking about what’s going on right now. And then there’s like the groups for people with divorced parents or different houses or sexual things… If you have core issues,” they said.

Another graduate, Francis, shared a similar experience with the frequent therapy as well as the traumatic and intense environment created by other patients, but they had positive interactions with the staff. “[The staff were] strict and followed the rules, but some tried to make our stay positive and add fun things to our day like printing out Buzzfeed quizzes,” they said.

Megan and Hunter did not have the same experience with the staff at their schools. They both spoke about feeling secure when in the staff’s good graces, but then feeling worried about being knocked down a level further from graduating their program by an annoyed staff member threatening to give a bad report to their therapist. Hunter continued on this point saying, “It was pretty ridiculous, some of the people… would come in from jobs like Jamba Juice, or one guy came from Vans, or like a local coffee shop. And then like they’re the ones who give reports to therapists about how we’re doing.”

Available job listings reaffirm Hunter’s point. One school offers $13 an hour for a job that consists of ensuring student safety, maintaining discipline and keeping a log of student behavior to be submitted at the end of their shifts. The job has three requirements: Pass an annual background check, be at least 19, maintain CPR/First Aid certification.

Current and former students shared similar experiences of their time away, but Phoebe, the sibling of a student who has been away for more than two years, shared her own perception of the schools and how being without her sibling has changed her home life.

Phoebe and her sibling were always close, and their communication is now reduced to letters and three fifteen-minute phone calls a week. Before COVID-19, they were able to see each other in person more, but she says, “When I visited, I don’t know, I mean you can tell [they] hate it there. When [they] come home, it’s just like it’s good until it’s not. It’s good until [they] run away… and we’re calling all [their] friends. It’s good until it’s not.”

Phoebe also has mixed feelings about the situation as a whole. On one hand, she believes there is less stress on everyone in her family without always having to be worried about her sibling. On the other hand, she misses them, and in the grand scheme of things she doesn’t think that the school has helped anyone in her family.

Phoebe was aware that life at home with her sibling was not working, but she also had concerns about what she had seen of the school and echoed a feeling held by the students and graduates about the environment it created. “It’s weird, it gives me weird vibes, it gives me weird, weird, weird vibes. Like it’s just a bunch of sick [kids], living together in a place where… there’s nothing to do and nothing to see,” she said. She continued about how devoid of purpose the life in the schools seems and said, “What I know about it [is that it] it just seems terrible, and it’s in the middle of nowhere in Utah. Like there’s literally nothing to do.”

When asked if she thought it had helped her sibling, she hesitated and said, “It’s helped [them] to the extent that it can help. First of all, a thing that’s overlooked is that the person who’s there actually has to put a lot of work in… if you’re not willing to do it takes forever.” For Phoebe, it has felt like forever –more than two years – since her sibling left. She now has a growing fear that as time goes by the chances of her sibling returning to a normal life get less and less possible, but she remains hopeful. Hopeful that someday her sibling can live alone, go to college, and have a family of their own.

For the time being, she turns to her memories and the special place she keeps all of the letters she has received. These letters do not lessen the burden of her experiences though, and in her closing words, she said, “I’ll always be asking if I did enough… I’ll literally die, I’ll be like dying and I’ll be asking if I did enough for [them], and hopefully one day I’ll live to know that I did, but I’ll always wonder that.”