HELENA - About 15 former students of a strict behavior-modification boarding school in Costa Rica have been sent to a sister school near Thompson Falls after students allegedly ransacked the Central American school in a riot last weekend.
The uprising apparently came a few days after Costa Rican authorities came to the school, called the Academy at Dundee Ranch, on May 20 to investigate complaints and told the teen-age students they had the right to leave.
The school's director, Narvin Lichfield, was later jailed for 27 hours and has been asked not to leave Costa Rica for six months, said Ken Kay, of St. George, Utah, president of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools. The association oversees the schools in both Costa Rica and Montana, along with others in Utah, New York, Mexico and Jamaica.
Kay said Wednesday that 15 students from Dundee Ranch have been sent to Spring Creek Lodge Academy west of Thompson Falls over the last week. The Costa Rican school has since been closed and the last batch of students was expected to leave the country Wednesday.
Spring Creek Lodge, like Dundee Ranch, is a boarding school for teen-agers with behavior problems, although Kay said the Montana school has a more restrictive "zero tolerance" policy on unruly behavior.
"If the kids get out of control (in Montana) or become a management problem, they are transferred out of there and sent home," Kay said.
Kay said nothing like the rebellion in Costa Rica has ever happened in the organization's five-year history.
Exactly what happened in Costa Rica is something of a debate. Press accounts say some adults at the school beat the teen-agers to silence the uprising. Kay said the rebellion included little more than broken windows, punched walls and strewn clothing, with only about 40 of the school's 205 students either leaving the school or engaging in unruly behavior. He also said it was irresponsible for Costa Rican authorities to come into a boarding school for troubled youths and tell the students they didn't have to listen to their teachers.
"If you did that in a Billings high school, you'd have some major problems, too," he said.
However, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica's capital, San Jose, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that U.S. officials started hearing and investigating complaints from students soon after the school opened two years ago. One press account described the appearance of Costa Rican authorities at the school as a "rescue" attempt to free the students.
In Montana, officials said they knew little of Spring Creek Lodge. The state does not license private boarding schools, said Shirley Tiernan, chief of the training bureau in the state's Child and Family Services Division.
The school seems to be well regarded both by community leaders in Thompson Falls and parents of teen-agers attending Spring Creek.
"I have never had a concern about her welfare there, never," said Dana Backiel of Washington state, whose 15-year-old daughter is a student and resident at Spring Creek Lodge. "I've gotten to know a number of people on the staff there and I have no doubt they have my child's best interests at heart. They are incredible people."
Backiel said she and other parents heard that an unhappy parent and a government unfamiliar with the strict regimen of World Wide's schools were at the root of the Costa Rican skirmish.
"They overreacted," she said.
"To think they have to rescue these kids - for some of the kids, (Dundee Ranch) was the rescue," said Lynn Briggs, a college professor from Spokane whose 17-year-old son is at Spring Creek Academy.
Kathy Denke, city clerk of Thompson Falls, said the Spring Creek Academy students are well known around town, often volunteering in community cleanup days, participating in parades and other town activities.
"They are really very community-minded," she said.
"We don't have any problems with this school," Denke said. "Whenever the students come and do things in the community, they are very well supervised."