POLAND — The Elan School’s closure, brought about by declining enrollment tied to an aggressively negative Web campaign, had the people engaged in that campaign cheering the therapeutic school’s closure Thursday.
The e-campaign, waged most recently on reddit.com, has been going on for years and in recent months stepped up in force with postings by a former student known as "Gzasmyhero."
On Wednesday, school owner Sharon Terry announced the private, for-profit boarding school would close April 1, unable to maintain its enrollment through what she called false and harsh Web attacks against the school, attacks that had the “avowed purpose of forcing the school to close.”
Web campaigners are happy to take the credit, and were congratulating themselves online and by phone following Terry’s announcement.
One message of congratulation, posted on reddit.com, reads: “… I will say that, although I'm usually pretty cynical about the effectiveness of internet activism, I can't deny that Gzasmyhero and the rest of you got sh** done.”
Another poster, who lives in Virginia, wrote: “The push to have this place get investigated and shut down has been pretty constant. …What's sad is that it took this long.”
David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said the agency has "investigated Elan a number of times based on reports of abuse and other deficiencies, and never found any evidence." He said that New York officials also have investigated, and never found evidence of abuse at the Poland school.
Portland attorney Ed MacColl, who represents the school, said Thursday he viewed the school closing as "very sad."
"I've worked with this school for 22 years now and there are parents of students who are currently at the school that are pleading with us to find a way to stay open because the school is so effective in helping kids," MacColl said.
Despite those pleas, MacColl said he did not foresee Terry changing her mind on the decision to close.
"This is a fabulous institution that has worked very hard over the years to address perceptions of some aspects of the school," he said, adding that the closure is heart-breaking to parents who see the program working for their children.
"It's unfortunate that the hardworking, talented and creative people associated with the school aren't getting simply the uniform praise they deserve for a lifetime of working with kids," he said.
Last fall, Elan students earned another cross-country championship, but MacColl said the school would not be attending a state-hosted appreciation event for this year's state champs.
In the past year, MacColl said school staff have made some significant improvements in the program, including increasing family involvement and visitation, more closely regulating the use of student restraints, increasing clinical supervision and training for staff, and improving its transition program for graduates.
Students have also launched a recycling program, raised funds for Haiti relief, volunteered to prepare Thanksgiving meals at a local church and established an Interact Club, a service club for youth that operates as part of Rotary International.
A number of former students acknowledged Thursday there may have been recent changes at the school that improved the study and living environments, but that their own years at the school were rife with practices that promoted student humiliation as a means of controlling bad behavior.
There are presently 29 students enrolled at the school, but MacColl said he would not comment on what administrators are doing to help place these students in other programs, citing confidentiality concerns. He also had no comment on what Terry intends to do with the property.
Click to read more of the stories from other men and women who attended the Elan school:
* One man, who attended the Elan School from 2001 to 2003, enlisted in the Army after he graduated and said his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan were easier to tolerate than his years at Elan.
* L. Davis (whose name has been changed) is attending college, something she never thought would happen before she was court-ordered to attend Elan. She’s grateful for the staff’s personal attention to her, and says any accusations of abuse are completely false.
* A Virginia businessman said he still has occasional nightmares that he’s back at the Elan School, which he remembers as a prison, and he can’t leave. He was part of the school’s security crew and subjected other students to punishment, which he deeply regrets.
* Sean Sullivan of Boston was 19 when he was court-ordered by the Connecticut Department of Correction to attend Elan for two years. It changed his life, giving him the focus he needed to confront his anger.
* Mark Babbitz of Chicago admits he was a violent, angry teen who caused trouble while he was at Elan, including stealing cars, and says the punishments he endured at the school traumatized him for life.
* Fred Konopasek of Massachusetts says Elan is the best thing that ever happened to him. The staff absolutely saved his life by breaking down his angry self and rebuilding him into a responsible man.
* Matt Hoffman of Virginia remembers the school as a sadistic place that used negative peer pressure to force students to behave. He’s since made “friends with his memories,” but finds his school experience hard to talk about.
* Rogers Johnson III of Philadelphia spent a year at the school in 2001. Although he said he was traumatized at the school, he did learn a degree of self-control that he said makes him behave somewhat “normal.”