Thu, Jun 19, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Life's a beach when you're bad

When adolescents in the US don't conform, they go to Tranquility Bay for behavior modification


Tranquility Bay is a tightly guarded compound in a lovely Caribbean hamlet and the oldest foreign outpost in a booming network of behavior-modification programs for US teenagers. Tranquility Bay has a reputation as the harshest of them all.


Tranquility Bay is a troubled paradise.

A tightly guarded compound in a lovely Caribbean hamlet, it is the oldest foreign outpost in a booming network of behavior-modification programs for American teenagers. Tranquility Bay has a reputation as the harshest of them all.

Many who have been there describe a life of pain and fear. They say they spent 13 hours a day, for weeks or months on end, lying on their stomachs in an isolation room, their arms repeatedly twisted to the breaking point. Others say the program took them off a road to hell and saved their lives.

Tranquility Bay's methods have spawned fierce supporters and critics, none more passionate than the children who have been through the program and the parents who sent them there.

The children say their parents have no idea what goes on behind the walls. The parents say program directors tell them to ignore all accusations of abuse.

"They tell your parents, `Your son may say he's been beaten, but he's lying,' and that, to me, is the greatest manipulation they pull," said Andrew Emmett, 16, from Washington.

Enrollment at Tranquility Bay, founded in 1996, has grown in the past two years from 140 to 300 youths, most of them 12 to 19 years old. It is becoming a battleground for the warring camps of parents and children, a growing number of whom oppose the program.

That fight may shape the future of Tranquility Bay's parent organization, the Utah-based World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, known as Wwasps, one of the biggest and most lucrative businesses of its kind.

In a statement sent to parents last month, Ken Kay, Wwasps' president, wrote, "The accusations are from students. The parents may believe them, but the parents weren't there." He continued, "The teens making the allegations generally have a long history of lying, exaggerating and dishonesty."

By telephone, he said that he did not welcome new requests for comment, as Wwasps had signed a television contract to tell its story in its own words.

Kay's son, Jay Kay, director of Tranquility Bay, said in an e-mail message declining a face-to-face interview that criticisms come from "one-tenth of one percent" of past clients -- a few people with "axes to grind."

There is little question that Wwasps programs -- including two in Mexico and at least eight in the US, with a total of roughly 2,300 children -- fill a crying need for parents unable to cope with their children.

Many parents who strongly support Tranquility Bay, which costs more than US$33,000 a year, see it as a near-miraculous crucible for changing defiant and delinquent teenagers. But others who sent their children say the program damaged their sons and daughters. A striking number of youths say that, while the program's goals may be noble, its methods are not.

In all, 32 children and parents spoke by telephone for this article, 23 others communicated by e-mail, and five face-to-face interviews took place in Jamaica.

"I got some good out of it," said Colin Johnstone, 15, of Louisville, Kentucky, who came to Tranquility Bay at 13. "But it is kind of like torture. It did me more damage than good."

He was not drinking or taking drugs, said his mother, Lisa Todd. He was "just immature." She said Colin had two teeth knocked loose by a staff member's fist and spent at least eight months in the isolation room. "They are very physically severe in Jamaica," she said. "For sure, they did things they couldn't do in America." But, she added, "I do think the program helps a lot of families that are desperate and don't know where to turn."

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