Family Foundation School / Allynwood Academy
CLOSED (August 2014)


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THE FAMILY FOUNDATION SCHOOL
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Chris Noroski

My name is Chris Noroski and I attended The Family Foundation School from 2001 to 2004. It has recently come to my attention that a bill has been introduced in Congress HR 5876 in order to regulate Therapeutic Boarding Schools and treatment facilities for “at-risk” teens. As a former student at one of these facilities, I can not even begin to express how important this measure is to me and more importantly, to the neglected and abused children still attending these facilities to this day.

As a child, I grew up with just my mom and I was an only child. As I reached adolescent, I was defiant and rebellious towards my mom, perhaps to a bigger extent than to most kids my age. I was very verbally abusive towards my mom, told her I hated her, wished she were dead, etc. I also spat in my mom’s face, blocked the doorways and told her that she could not leave the house until she gave me what she wants. I also am ashamed to admit that I had slapped my mom across the face. I also cut school quite a bit and had quite an anger management problem (I had punched quite a few holes in my bedroom wall prior to being sent to FFS).

When I was fifteen years old and after displaying these actions for a year or so, I was woken up in the middle of the night by two men, who proceeded to handcuff me, shackle me, and put me in the back of a Lincoln town car. I had no idea who they were, where I was going, or why. Honestly, I thought I had been kidnapped at first. I was a scared, scrawny, 15 year old kid.

During my time at The Family School, I witnessed many things that I would consider to be child abuse. About two weeks after I arrived there, I refused to go to school until I was able to talk to my mom. They told me that wasn’t going to happen and made me stand in a corner of a room all day and did not feed me anything until I complied. When I still refused, two staff members then picked me up by neck and held me against the wall in the corner of the room while yelling obscenities at me. I was slammed over a table, which proceeded to fall on top of me and I received a blackeye. It should be important to note that I made no physical advances or threats on either staff member; I just nonviolently stated that I was not going to comply with their demands.

I attempted to behave myself for the next two weeks or so until they would allow me to speak with my mother. I promised I would not say anything bad to my mom on the phone, but as soon as I got on the phone I told my mom what had happened to me. A staff member took away the phone and reassured my mom that I was lying, while looking at me and my black eye just a foot away. I was then put on “family” blackout, on which I was not allowed to talk to my mom for months.

Being stubborn, I refused to admit that I needed to work their program. During my first few months there, several staff members tried to get me to admit to problems that I did not have, such as drug and alcohol abuse, two things that I had not tried at all.

Also, the school has a very strict anti-masturbation policy. On several occasions, I was forced to get up in front of “the family” (a group “therapy” session where a student stands up in front of 30 peers and about 5-10 staff members and people take turns telling you what is wrong with you). Students were encouraged to call me a pervert, and girls told me that I was a disgusting person because I masturbated. All of this was discussed over meals. That is an embarrassment and public humiliation that no student deserves. A lot of the policies at FFS exist to publicly demean the student. They seek to destroy a student’s will to fight by making you feel worthless. It is no surprise that one student while I was at FFS committed suicide. While I did not know the student (Tom M), he committed suicide after a short time at the school. I can not say that I blame FFS for that because I did not know Tom well, but I do remember that the first month was the hardest time at the school, and that I also entertained suicidal thoughts when I was first there.

During my final year at The Family School, I was a member of the school Basketball Team, and we all got in trouble for making inappropriate comments about girls on the cheerleading team. The comments were honestly not that out of the ordinary for high school adolescent guys (still perhaps not the most wholesome comments). We were forced to stand up in front of the house (the entire student body and 30-40 or more staff members who each yelled at us for at least 2 hours). Students, particularly the girls were encouraged to mock us. One girl was even applauded for saying that “If we talked about her like that, she would cut our dicks off.” This type of derisive behavior was encouraged.

Male students were discouraged from talking to the female students. Some boys got in trouble for as much as “making eye contact” with female students. Smiling towards the opposite sex was strictly forbidden, and I did not have any female friends while at this school. Granted, some boarding schools are all-male or all-female, but here it was co-ed yet natural hormones and feelings were meant to feel unnatural by the FFS staff. I would say that this was probably the most lasting negative effect of my stay at FFS. Prior to my arrival at FFS, I had had only one girlfriend in my life. Since leaving the school, 4 years ago, I would say that it has just been in the last year that I have been able to reopen up around the opposite sex, and realizing that being attracted to girls is not “a bad thing”. I don’t have to fear standing in a corner if I smile at a cute girl anymore, but that has taken time. Three years of my formative teenage life in terms of dating and maturing as a person were taken away from me by FFS.

Some of my peers at FFS certainly were very dangerously “at-risk” teens. There were students who were facing 20 years or more in prison if they did not complete The Family School program, others were sex addicts who had abused siblings, others were suicidal/extremely depressed. The main issue that I have with programs, The Family School in particular is their false marketing strategies. They claim to be a “college-preparatory boarding school.” I don’t think that I could have been worse prepared for college than I was by FFS. I was confused and by the time I graduated I halfway thought I was a drug addict/alcoholic even though I had never done either in my life.

The lies that I told to get by and finally escape that place still haunt me today. Students were encouraged to tell other students their faults down to the nitpickiest things. I fought the FFS system for 2 years. The result was I placed on work sanctions on 10 different occasions. These sanctions lasted between a week and 2 months in my case and consisted of menial labor all day, with no formal education. I was taken out of school to do tasks such as carrying buckets of rocks from point A to point B all day and then the next day carry the same rocks from point B to point A. I also built drainage ditches, resodded parts of the campus, and during the summer was given a manual lawnmower and sent outside into 100 degree heat all day, sometimes without sunscreen or enough proper breaks for water. These “sanctions” were 7 days a week from the moment we woke up 6:15 am (work usually began around 8:30 am) and lasted until 7:30 pm. I would approximate that I missed 6-9 months of formal education doing this type of labor.

After two years, of refusing to comply with The Family School way of life, I finally assuaged my behavior to their policies so that they would let me graduate. I told on my fellow students, and was a nitpicking, pain in the ass hypocrite. Staff praised me for “holding my peers accountable” If we didn’t tell other students their faults, it was assumed that we were “being dishonest, not working our programs, wanting to relapse, etc.”

In many ways, FFS operates like a cult. They try to get you to believe that if you do not do what they say you will die. You become dependent on what they say, because they tell you that you will never leave the school if you don’t do what they say.

FFS boasts a 100% college placement rating. I can not count the number of times where students were told “if you do not go to college, you will relapse and die.” They portray an image that is plainly not true.

I saw that FFS responded to Jon Martin’s testimony at the recent Congressional hearing in April 2008 and it seemed to me that they were taking credit for his success as a person. I remember two weeks after I graduated they put a picture of me up on their website with quotes from my graduation speech, which was heavily edited by the administration. They told me what to say and how to say it so that the visiting parents could see the joys and successes of their program. I remember crying during my graduation speech, not because I believed a word of the “touching” speech I was giving, but rather because this horrendous experience was finally over. I was finally free.

Of my five peers who graduated the program when I did, not a single one remained “sober” after leaving there. The truth is that most former Family School students succeed in spite of FFS rather than because of it.

Once I left The Family School, I tried to tell my mom what happened at FFS. She would not believe me. She would call me a liar and say that I was just bitter at her for sending me there. I had realized that my mom had been tricked by FFS into believing that they were trying to help me. I no longer blamed her, but just wanted her to believe me when I told her of the abuses that went on there. Only recently, following the latest Congressional hearing has my mom broken down and said that she was sorry that she did not realize what was happening there.

HR 5876 MUST BE PASSED. Every child has the intrinsic right to be able to be protected and not abused. Programs such as The Family School do not ensure these rights. Students must be allowed to talk to Child Services. There was no access to Child Services while at The Family School.

Sometimes, students need “tough love”. While I believe that I would have naturally grew out of my immaturity over my teenage years, that is not the case for all “troubled teens.” Therapeutic boarding schools and programs are a good idea, but only under proper supervision and regulation. HR 5876 allocates $50,000,000 per year to regulate these programs and to allow phone access to students to Children’s services. I am truly grateful to Kat Whitehead and Jon Martin for being courageous enough to make headway into this very difficult subject.

At first, I was not sure that I wanted to submit testimony, but I remember how scared and alone I was during my first month at FFS, where I was physically and emotionally taken advantage of. That is an experience that no one should have to go through, particularly a defenseless child with nowhere/no one to turn to. It is my hope that we can move forward as a society and insure the protection of the weakest ones among us, because in my opinion that says a lot about the character of our society as a whole.

I am no longer bitter or angry about what happened to me at FFS. If anything, I am a bit sad. I have one year left at The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where I am pursuing a degree in Science and Mathematics for Elementary Education. I am backing up the words I write here and believe I have found a career and a purpose that I can find meaning and inspiration in. I want to protect our nation’s children and to be an integral part in being a positive influence rather than a demeaning influence even if it is one classroom at a time.

Submitted by: Chris Noroski