Notable Abusive Youth Reform Schools and Boarding Schools

January 3, 2024 | Attorney, Matthew Dolman
Notable Abusive Youth Reform Schools and Boarding Schools

The “troubled teen” industry has exploited thousands of kids for decades, relying on barbaric tactics to isolate and control vulnerable students. Before the rise of wilderness therapy programs and boot camps, youth reform schools and residential boarding schools were the primary institutions responsible for rehabilitating children and teens. Students were enrolled in reformatory schools or boarding schools for reasons ranging from violent crimes and mental health issues to petty theft and poverty. Others were simply runaways or orphans.

Instead of fulfilling their legal and moral responsibility to care for the students in their charge, the staff at certain institutions perpetrated a campaign of physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse against these children. In many cases, survivors have worked together to expose the horrors of youth reform schools and boarding schools for troubled teens, revealing patterns of neglect, psychological torment, starvation, beatings, rape, and even murder in institutions across the country.

If you or your child endured abuse at a youth reform school or boarding school for troubled teens, you may have legal options for recovering compensation for damages you sustained. The personal injury lawyers of Dolman Law Group are heavily involved in the effort to help boarding and reform school survivors secure the compensation they deserve. Reach out to our dedicated team at (727) 451-6900 or complete our online contact form today to schedule a free consultation.

Notorious Dozier School For Boys Concealed Dozens of Suspicious Student Deaths

Dozier School for Boys operated as a state-run, residential facility in the Florida panhandle for over 100 years before it was finally closed. Former students are trying to pursue personal injury claims based on the myriad of abusive behaviors they endured at the hands of staff. Survivors report being whipped with a leather strap, thrown into running dryers, trapped in solitary confinement for weeks, and sexually abused.

They were also frequently denied proper food, clothing, and education. When the school became obscenely overcrowded, a second campus was built in Okeechobee where staff members continued the abuse.

An investigation of the original property later revealed at least 50 graves, which had not been included in the school’s official records of student deaths. An additional 31 boys are known to have died there prior to its closure in 2011. A group of survivors, known as the White House Boys, have led the effort to hold the state accountable for the abuse that took place at Dozier School for Boys and the Okeechobee School. They received an official apology from the state in 2017, but their path to compensation has been stalled due to Florida’s statute of limitations.

The Status of Dozier School Abuse Lawsuits

The state legislature attempted to pass a bill in 2021 that would have created a certification process for Dozier and Okeechobee survivors, with the ultimate goal of compensating them. Despite significant public support for the legislation and overwhelming evidence of abuse from survivors’ first-hand accounts, the bill died in committee. State Senator George Gainer, who failed to schedule a hearing for the bill, was quoted as saying he refused to believe 500 children were abused at Dozier School for Boys and the Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee. 

Elan Boarding School Perpetrated Abuse Disguised as Discipline 

Unlike the Dozier School for Boys, Elan Boarding School was a private, co-ed institution located in Maine. It was founded in 1970 by Dr. Gerald Davidson and Joseph Ricci, ostensibly with the goal of rehabilitating teens with behavioral problems. Elan quickly developed a reputation for being the last resort for difficult students. The school took a legalistic approach to discipline, often employing fear tactics and corporal punishment to break students. Elan staff wielded their authority as a weapon from their first interaction with a student. 

Survivors have reported being effectively kidnapped from their own beds in the middle of the night, handcuffed, and driven to Elan without explanation. Parents sanctioned this treatment after being reassured it was protocol. On campus, Elan staff had absolute control.

Psychological torment was a key feature of their abusive methods. Students were routinely humiliated for breaking arbitrary rules by being forced to wear demeaning costumes or signs, shower in front of others, and perform degrading acts. 

Staff also encouraged division among students by assigning them to police each other, gang up on a target and verbally abuse them, or even engage in physical fights until the student being punished was seriously injured.

One of the most insidious ways that Elan staff harmed students was by extorting false confessions. This was accomplished through a combination of violence, manipulation, and coercion. While Elan was forced to close in 2011, survivors and their families are still working towards a just legal resolution.

Mt. Meigs Reform School Became Modern Day Slavery For Black Children

Also known as the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, Mt. Meigs was founded with honorable intentions. The reform school was established outside of Montgomery in 1907 by Black educator Cornelia Bowen, who envisioned a rehabilitative institution for Black children who would otherwise be sent to adult prison. Booker T. Washington, a leading civil rights activist and fellow educator, recognized the need for the school, as Black children were often labeled as delinquents for minor offenses even if they hadn’t broken the law. 

Mt. Meigs became increasingly abusive after it was purchased by the state of Alabama in 1911. Instead of viewing the students as children, staff approached them as if they were hardened criminals. By the 1960s, the Mt. Meigs students were performing exhaustive manual labor tending crops, under conditions reminiscent of slavery.

They were largely deprived of an education and adequate nutrition, sexually abused, and regularly subject to corporal punishment. This dehumanizing treatment included the cruel and constant destruction of the children’s self-esteem and mental health in general.

The Current Status of Mt. Meigs Reform School

The reform school remains open today, and it also accommodates students from the Chalkville Campus, a correctional facility for girls that was destroyed by a tornado in 2012. Chalkville students endured their own mistreatment in the 1990s, including sexual abuse, medical neglect, forced isolation, and physical assault. Dozens of Chalkville survivors filed a class action lawsuit and successfully secured $12.5 million in damages from the State of Alabama. Mt. Meigs survivors are just beginning to publicly address their experiences, so no formal legal action has yet been taken.

Agape Boarding School Relied on Religious Reputation to Keep Rampant Abuse Secret

The Agape Boarding School began informally in the 1980s, when Jim and Kathy Clemensen, along with their adult son Bryan, started using a religious curriculum and physical punishment to “educate” the foster children in their care. The family moved to Washington state, where the school grew to 140 students.

After reports that the Clemensens had forced the children to perform excessive and dangerous manual labor, county health inspectors also discovered egregious violations on the school’s property and shut it down.

The current iteration of Agape Boarding School is located in Stockton, Missouri, where the Clemensens restarted their program in 1996. Among the local population of 1,600, the Clemensen family cultivated a reputation as devout Baptists who rehabilitated troubled boys. Combined with the staff’s ties to local law enforcement and minimal state oversight, Agape Boarding School evaded detection for years.

Survivors describe an authoritarian institution where staff berated and starved students, handcuffed them to beds, restrained them using painful pressure points, choked them with cords, and viciously beat them. Additionally, Agape’s school doctor sexually abused students for years. This brutal and inhumane treatment drove some Agape students to attempt suicide.

Abuse Lawsuits Against Agape Boarding School

Missouri’s Attorney General pursued dozens of criminal charges against Agape staff members, and numerous civil lawsuits have followed. Agape settled with over a dozen survivors, though many pending claims remain.

One such case is a wrongful death claim. The mother of a former Agape student alleges the school is liable for her son’s suicide because staff condoned and perpetrated the gang rape that led to his death. In January 2023, Agape announced it would close due to a lack of funds.

Seeking Compensation Can Be Complicated For Survivors of Child Abuse

Many families are understandably outraged and motivated to take legal action after learning about their child’s abuse at the hands of a youth reform school or boarding school. In addition to criminal charges, individuals who were abused while under the care of a youth reform institution or boarding school may be able to pursue compensation for damages in civil court through a personal injury claim. 

In cases like these, plaintiffs often encounter numerous obstacles to recovering compensation.  Willing witnesses can be difficult to come by, the statute of limitations may have expired, and the abusive institution may no longer exist. It can also be challenging to identify, verify, and quantify damages like pain and suffering that may span decades. 

Beyond the legal barriers survivors face, the prospect of reliving their experiences with abusive reform schools or boarding schools can be a deterrent, especially when there is no guarantee of a favorable outcome. Psychological trauma can be challenging to navigate in the privacy of a therapist’s office, let alone in front of a team of lawyers looking to undermine your claim. If you plan on pursuing a claim, consider hiring your own advocate.

Why You Should Hire Dolman Law Group to Advocate For Your Boarding School Or Reform School Abuse Lawsuit

At Dolman Law Group, we have valuable experience working with survivors of childhood abuse, including clients who were abused by clergy, Boy Scout staff, and other authority figures. This background has informed the way we approach child sex abuse lawsuits and reaffirmed our commitment to supporting survivors. With challenging claims like these, you need a seasoned personal injury attorney with a strong record of negotiating fair settlements for plaintiffs with similar cases.

We understand that for many survivors, recovering compensation is about more than financial reimbursement for damages, and we will work relentlessly to negotiate a just settlement for your reform or boarding school claim that is tailored to accommodate your goals. As our former clients will tell you, our award-winning personal injury attorneys are capable negotiators who will champion your claim with not just experience but empathy as well.

Contact Dolman Law Group For Help With Your Youth Reform or Boarding School Abuse Lawsuit

Too often, youth reform schools and boarding schools were allowed to operate without supervision, which allowed staff to engage in flagrant abuse of students, with long-term consequences. The personal injury attorneys of Dolman Law Group are working diligently to pursue compensation for boarding school and reform school survivors so that they can recover the compensation and acknowledgment they deserve.

At Dolman Law Group, we believe that justice is long overdue for survivors of abuse. Our team is dedicated to holding abusive boarding schools and youth reform schools accountable for their failure to fulfill their duty of care to the students they were responsible for sheltering, feeding, and educating. If you are interested in exploring your legal options, we encourage you to reach out to our team at (727) 451-6900 or complete our online contact form to schedule a free consultation.


Matthew Dolman

Personal Injury Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has successfully fought for more than 11,000 injured clients and acted as lead counsel in more than 1,000 lawsuits. Always on the cutting edge of personal injury law, Matt is actively engaged in complex legal matters, including Suboxone, AFFF, and Ozempic lawsuits.  Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

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