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An Abusive, Cult-Like School for ‘Troubled Teens’ Gets Exposed

Netflix
Netflix

There are many critiques to be leveled at the true-crime genre, but one positive aspect of its works is that they allow those who’ve been thwarted by the judicial system and the government to attain a measure of justice by publicly outing their vile abusers, plastering their faces on global streaming platforms, and forever linking their names to their worst misdeeds. Preventing them from continuing to hide, to evade, and to deny, they hold monsters—and the wretched systems they create, and which enable them—accountable for all the world to see.

Such is the case with The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping, a three-part Netflix venture (March 5) directed and spearheaded by Katherine Kubler. In the grand tradition of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo—a book she voraciously read during her harrowing personal ordeal—Katherine uses her docuseries as an act of exposure, rebellion, and vengeance against the individuals who tortured her during her 15-month stay at the Academy of Ivy Ridge, an institution in upstate Ogdensburg, New York, for troubled teens. Katherine was sent there by her father Ken and stepmother Jane, though “sent” is a euphemistic term in this context. As was frequently the case with Ivy Ridge and likeminded disciplinary boarding schools, Katherine was literally abducted from her home in the middle of the night by two men who handcuffed her and transported her to the rural enclave, all without having a clue about what was taking place or where she was going, and with the full approval of her parents.

Upon arriving at Ivy Ridge, Katherine was quickly enlisted in a program that earned compliance through fear, violence, and manipulation. There were endless rules to memorize and follow, including no smiling, no making eye contact with others, and no going outside. Following these statutes earned kids points that allowed them to move up to higher “levels,” and violating them resulted in demerits and punishments, be it loss of privileges (as if kids had many to begin with), solitary confinement, or physical attacks. They spent every day locked inside the sprawling interconnected facility doing bogus classwork via homeschool computer programs (because Ivy Ridge wasn’t a real school with legitimate diplomas, as they’d later learn) and engaging in therapy sessions in which they confessed their sins, pledged allegiance to the program, and suffered the slings and arrows of their fellow classmates—a practice based on the corrosive “The Game” pioneered by the Synanon cult, whose operation was the foundational model for Ivy Ridge and its ilk.

Katherine and some of her equally traumatized and resilient Ivy Ridge survivors put themselves front and center in The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping, relaying their horror stories while traipsing through the old school buildings, where—in an amazingly fortuitous twist—they discover a veritable treasure trove of handwritten notes and files that function as signed confessions to child abuse, as well as surveillance videos of administrators brutally assaulting minors. This evidence corroborates their allegations and paints a disturbing portrait of an organization designed not to rehabilitate or educate (considering that no employees had professional qualifications as teachers, therapists, or counselors) but simply to control through brainwashing, humiliation, and coercion, not to mention literal restraints and sexual violation—the last of which is agonizingly described, step by exploitative step, by Katherine’s friend Alexa.

Between Katherine’s testimonials and those offered by additional Ivy Ridge alums, The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping presents a terrifying insider’s view of the institution and the lasting damage on those who attended. Interviews with authors and experts address the long-term PTSD wrought by such experiences, although the series truly expands its purview by simultaneously grappling with the role that parents played in this nightmare. Bolstered by home movies of her early days as a budding documentarian (and all-around happy kid), Katherine’s tormented feelings about her father Ken prove central to that process. So too is her inquiry into the ways that Ivy Ridge preyed upon mothers and fathers’ desperation and anxiety—and then outright lied to them, as well as actively indoctrinated them into the program—in order to convince them that their kids were in good hands and that Ivy Ridge was the answer to their prayers.

He Uncovered a Rogue CIA Conspiracy. Then He Was Found Dead.

That alone would make The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping a complex study of the mechanisms that drive the burgeoning “troubled teen” industry, and yet Katherine nonetheless manages to take her exposé a step further by investigating the real power players behind this phenomenon. As it turns out, Ivy Ridge (which, following numerous scandals, closed its doors for good in 2009) was merely one of many schools operating under the umbrella of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS) created by Robert Lichfield to make himself and his buddies—including his brother Narvin and former security guard-turned-WWASPS president Ken Kay—unbelievably wealthy. Determined to “follow the money,” Katherine reveals the entire enterprise as a for-profit scam in which kids were referred to as “units” and scarred for life, and parents were duped into forking over tens of thousands of dollars in tuition so their offspring could be beaten, starved, and imprisoned.

On more than one occasion in The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping, Katherine and her accomplices track down and confront former Ivy Ridge staffers, whose defensive denials far outweigh their contrition. No matter how much they feign innocence and ignorance, however, it’s obvious that Ivy Ridge was a hellhole, and likely so too are the legions of similar “schools” that continue to flourish around the country and globe, adhering to the same principles and programs as Ivy Ridge, and reopening under different names when they’re shut down. Despite chats with lawyers and lawmakers, Katherine doesn’t get far in her mission to hold Lichfield liable for the wrongs he and his cruel acolytes perpetrated. Nonetheless, her incisive and stinging docuseries admirably accomplishes that feat—and given that it’ll be airing on a streaming service that reaches hundreds of millions of viewers in nearly 200 countries, it will do so in a manner that the “troubled teen” mogul and his acolytes can’t escape.

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