So What’s That Property With The High Wall Around It?

It’s a school for troubled kids
BY: TOM EMANUEL

Along the coast south of Rosarito past the sand dunes lies a unique property. There is very little indication from the outside as to what lies behind the massive dark brown wooden door which guards the entrance.

Pretty nice campus for a school of last resort for troubled kids

This is a school for kids between the ages of 12 and 17, and it is not secretive, but it is very concerned with safety and security for its students. Once inside the gate you are presented with a very pleasant campus containing three large buildings on extensive manicured grounds and situated directly on the ocean. It accommodates up to 50 students but it usually supports between 35 to 45 teenagers who are there to be reintegrated with their families. They call it a therapeutic boarding school.

The program provides an opportunity to decrease stress so the teens become accountable for their actions. The students work daily on their core issues without external influences, because they follow a highly structured and tailored program to keep productive and focused throughout their stay. This empowers parents to regain leadership. These kids’ families may be split by divorce or remarriage, or in a single-parent home. In any case the school involves the parents and other family members through counseling, correspondence, and visitations.  Upon arrival, many of the kids believe their parents have the problems, not them, so the school works to realign the teen’s beliefs so they understand that parents are actually part of the solution.

The large building straight ahead from the gate houses the girl’s dorm, the kitchen, the medical director’s office, the pharmacy, the clinic, the group therapy rooms, and other staff offices. There are beds and dressers and a shared bath for five girls in each of the building’s living spaces. All of the girl’s dorms are neat, tidy, and well arranged. There are no cluttered counter tops filled with dozens of bottles jars, and no closets with empty swinging hangers and piles of clothes littering the floor.

The larger building on the left houses the boy’s dormitory, the expansive recreation room, an extensive computer room, the office of admissions staff, and common showers and bathrooms for the boys downstairs. Again, all beds are made and clothing stored and folded out of sight. The beds have a variety of covers and bedspreads as desired by the occupant. They are not issued standard matching materials which you might suspect would be in a military type boarding school. There are generally two beds per room, although two rooms contained four beds. These are where new students sleep in a room with a trusted, more experienced attendee and two other students who have been on campus for some time. This helps the new person to acclimate to the expected behavioral norms of the school.

All buildings on this campus are two stories. To the right as you enter the gate is a building which contains staff living facilities and it is not used for student housing. The school has a total of 35 staff or nearly one staff person for each student.

More than 80% of the students come from the United States but there are also other students from all over the world. Dubai, France, South Africa and other countries are represented. Each student undergoes an extensive medical evaluation, blood and urine tests and liver panels, for example. The staff wants to know who they are dealing with medically. If the student is overweight or underweight they fairly quickly attain a correct weight balance. They average about 2,300 calories a day and are encouraged to make good use of the recreational facilities available to them.

It is not easy to be admitted to this school. The family is evaluated as well as the student, and the family must be very active and involved with the therapies offered. They must physically visit their child at least once per month and interact with them on skype every week. There is no placing the kid in a holding tank and no emotional abandonment tolerated. If the parents do not want to be strongly supportive and undergo their own emotional and psychological adjustments in dealing with their children, the student will not be admitted.

The students here are treated by therapists with at least a masters degree in psychology or a medical degree in psychiatry. Many of them have advanced specialities relating to the treatment of troubled teens through child and adolescent therapies. Students are admitted with ADHD, bipolar disorder, opposition mood disorder, clinical depression, or reactive detachment disorder, among other diagnoses. Sometimes substance abuse is involved but often this is a secondary side effect of the main issue.

Many of these kids have been through other programs that don’t work. Their parents have tried everything they can think of and have committed themselves to this program as a last resort. Most of the students have very high IQ’s and many come from high profile families. This accounts for the emphasis by the school on safety and security and anonymity for the students.

The therapies employed are medical, cognitive, and non-addictive. They are behavioral interventions intended to help the student reintegrate with a formerly chaotic family situation. No antipsychotic drugs are used like ritalin, lurasidone, risperidone or olanzapine. These drugs are dangerous, sometimes have undesirable side effects, and are not considered useful for this population.

The student must be prepared to stay at the school for a minimum of six months and the cost is $2,395 per month and is considered to be very inexpensive for this type of treatment. In addition, students do not miss out on academic progress while at the Pacific Life Treatment program. They can obtain a high school diploma through Forest Trail Academy, an online school which is accredited to issue regular diplomas not GEDs. The kids appeared to like the school and liked being there.

We talked several kids who all had cheerful dispositions and said the staff treated them with respect and like real adults. There was a loving atmosphere among the staff members and our guide, the medical director, had a very easy way of interacting with the kids we met, joking with them and teasing them. Everyone was excited that day because it was parents weekend.  One kid was thrilled because not only his parents but also his grandparents were down to visit him.

They are evaluated every week on a set of 17 criteria. They all want to do well on these because if they do, they get extra privileges such as the use of an ipod to listen to their own music. Music is considered to be an important part of the program. Once they have obtained that rating for three weeks in a row they have reached “trusted” status. Every student we talked to knew their exact rating and how long they had been at that level.

It is hard to tell from an afternoon visit how effective the Pacific Life Program is, but if the staff and the student attitudes are any indication, it is very good for a group of kids who in their short lives have seen too much and done too much. The school claims over 75% success in reintegrating these kids into a functional productive
family.