POLAND SPRING — Peter Moore laced up 16-ounce boxing gloves – twice the heft professionals wear – and stepped into the “ring,” a circle of his chanting Elan schoolmates with a teen-age boy in the center.

Moore had been told to fight as part of the other student’s punishment – an opportunity he almost relished.

“I knew what he did to the house and it was wrong,” Moore says, referring to the dorm they shared at the private school for troubled teens. “I was determined to kick this guy’s ass.”

He landed a “couple of cheap shots” and after a minute the round ended. Moore’s body ached, but he proudly says he never fell down. Moore left the ring and a fresh opponent entered to fight the same boy. After another minute, a third student entered the ring to fight the original boy, who gave up at the end of that round.

Student-on-student bouts are just some of the controversial tactics at Elan that took center stage in the murder trial of alumnus Michael Skakel. For those following the trial, Moore’s story sounds familiar.

Skakel, 41, was found guilty Friday of killing neighbor Martha Moxley with a golf club in Greenwich, Conn., when he was 15. During his trial, former classmates testified that Skakel was forced to box other students at the school in 1978 after he denied killing Moxley. The bout didn’t end until he admitted he didn’t know whether he had killed her or not.

But Moore didn’t attend the school in the 1970s, a troubling era replayed in great detail during the trial. He graduated from Elan in 1996.

As the Skakel verdict came down last week and the spotlight on Elan dims for now, it is difficult to tell if life at this school on the shores of Upper Range Pond is as severe today as it was in the ’70s.

Moore said he witnessed one girl stand in a corner for 57 days – a long-held practice. But he also said another traditional Elan punishment – wearing embarrassing costumes – wasn’t practiced in his time.

Complaints on an Internet site of self-described “survivors” contrast sharply between the 1970s and 1990s. In the 1970s, one person complains of being spanked with a clipboard to the point of bleeding (she was accused of killing a nest of birds,) and another says he was forced to eat four packs of cigarettes (he’d been accused of stealing.)

In the 1990s, protests were seemingly tame by those standards: Someone was denied a visit home at the last minute; someone else waited two hours to use the bathroom; several students had to withstand a rampage by a house director after someone stole his vegetarian nutburger from the fridge.

One of Elan’s directors says there have been no turning points, no radical shifts in philosophy or practice, although Elan has told the state the boxing stopped years ago. (See related story on the early years at Elan.)

“To my knowledge, there has not been a change in the terms of the treatment or the approach,” says James Roche, an education consultant who has referred about 50 children to Elan in 22 years. “It’s still an intensive, therapeutic experience.”

Whether or not the methods have changed, parents continue to send their children to the unconventional school, paying more than $100,000 for an average 27-month stay, often in a last-ditch effort to control what Roche describes as kids who are “disturbed,” “out of control” and “at very high risk of long-term incarceration.”

He added: “Elan has been given some notoriety because of Skakel. (But) if Michael Skakel hasn’t killed anybody since he was 15 … it worked.”

A ‘uniquely successful mission’

Gerald Davidson, a medical doctor, and Joe Ricci, who stayed at a similar facility when he was young, started Elan. Ricci, always controversial and outspoken, would eventually buy Scarborough Downs racetrack, make two failed runs for governor and live on in infamy after his January 2001 death from cancer.

His widow, Sharon Terry, is now president and treasurer of the school.

Elan is the lone inhabitant of North 5 Road in a remote part of town, its 32-acre campus originally an old summer camp. There are several two-story homes mixed with faded brown trailers at the center of campus. Aging basketball hoops, a volleyball net and picnic tables are also on the grounds. There are plenty of trees and no fence in sight.

Elan’s techniques are as basic as its facilities, according to former students and Roche.

Guilt. Humiliation. Peer-pressure. Intense structure. Privileges are given or yanked away, depending on behavior. For those who break the rules, there’s yelling, scrubbing floors, washing pots and standing in a corner for days at a time. Students are encouraged to tell on other students.

Shoelaces are one of the barest luxuries. They were taken away from kids marked as potential runaways.

The radical treatment can be a damaging experience or a lifesaver – sometimes both.

“I was brainwashed to a certain extent, but then maybe my brain needed washing,” says Moore, who was binge drinking and out of control before he came to Elan. “People say Elan is a good place and a horrible place. I agree with all of them.”

What’s more, he doesn’t regret his round in the ring. There was a lesson in the fighting, Moore says. “It’s more to prove violence gets you nowhere.”

Though it turned his life around, he says he would never send his own children.

Elan officials won’t defend the school’s techniques except to say the school has been exonerated in study after study. Responding to criticism and inquiries during the trial, it offered this statement in a press release:

“Elan is proud of its entire 30-year history and looks forward to continuing its uniquely successful mission of helping troubled teen-agers from across the country.”

John Campbell is a Portland lawyer and one of Elan’s three directors.

“It has changed as we all change over 30 years,” he says.

‘An effective teacher’

One of those changes is the school’s student body. In the 1970s, teens were called “residents,” not students, and were often placed by court order. Today, Campbell says, parents send most of the 150 teens who reside at the school.

When Sara Thomas’ mother, Alice Delany, found out about Elan, her daughter had already failed the ninth grade three times.

“I had a lot of problems, as far as authority was concerned. I was doing a lot of drugs, I was sexually promiscuous. It was beyond every teen-age thing. I was out of control,” says Thomas, who now lives in West Virginia raising quarter horses.

Delany was desperate. She brought her daughter to Elan in 1996. Her employer’s insurance company paid for 90 percent of the cost.

Initially Thomas fought the program. Two weeks into her stay a general meeting was called on her because she’d disobeyed school rules, using her body to get a boy’s attention. (Relationships, sex, violence and drugs are all strictly forbidden at Elan.) General meetings are used by students to take other students to task. Occasionally, it’s a precursor to a bout in the ring. (Girls fought other girls, wearing chest protectors. All boxing students wore headgear.)

For Thomas’ meeting, students sat around her and simply talked to her, voicing their disappointment.

“I will tell you one thing: That general meeting was probably the best thing to happen to me at Elan,” she says. “I had people my own age, my peers, telling me I need to get my (act) together.”

She was forced to walk around campus with a sign around her neck. She doesn’t remember what it said, but it was designed to humiliate. Six months later Thomas stopped fighting the program. In July 1998, she graduated after a two-and-a-half-year stay.

“I never felt abused, I never felt mistreated,” Thomas says. “It saved my life.”

Thomas, who turns 23 this month, marvels that she married a former Eagle Scout. “He was just an exemplary person growing up,” she says. “Before I went to Elan I thought I would end up with a junkie or knocked up with a kid or AIDS or anything.”

Delany says the whole family feels Elan worked for her daughter. She hasn’t been watching the news or reading the papers about the Skakel trial, but says the general idea of a boxing ring doesn’t bother her.

“You’d have to be around kids like Sara – they’re very hard to control,” Delany says. “I do know that you can learn from pain. It’s an effective teacher.”

Of license and regulation

The Department of Education has been in charge of licensing Elan since the mid-1980s.

It has a license for normal school services – classes are held nightly from 6 to 10, allowing time for work and therapy during the day. That license requires volumes of annual paperwork but no site visits. There isn’t time, says Yellow Light Breen, a department spokesman.

A second license, as a special purpose private school, does require state inspection. Breen says it was last reviewed in 1996 – when deficiencies were found – and rechecked in 1998. He isn’t sure what those deficiencies were, but said it was not unusual.

Both licenses focus strictly on the school’s academic programs.

State involvement appears to end there. If it doesn’t involve activities engaged in for credit or taught by a certified instructor, the department is not regulating it, according to Edwin Kastuck, on the department’s learning system team.

The Department of Human Services has forwarded four complaints of abuse and neglect at Elan – three in 1998, one in 2001 – to the Department of Education in the last four years, but it’s not clear who, if anyone, is monitoring Elan’s treatment or therapy programs.

“Clearly, our staff told me they certainly didn’t see anything four years ago or six years ago that constituted child abuse,” Breen says. But they weren’t looking for it, either.

“It’s not clear to me how we should react based on what we read in the newspapers,” he added, referring to coverage of the Skakel trial. “We certainly don’t want to be burying our heads in the sand. I have to talk more to our staff about what an appropriate reaction should be.”

Elan has never held a residential care license, which would make it eligible to be a MaineCare (Medicaid) provider, but it has tried for one at least twice, according to DHS spokesman Newell Augur. The last time was 1993. Each time, Elan never followed through with the application requirements.

Augur said the loss of a DHS license for substance and alcohol abuse treatment in 1985 was significant for Elan because at that time Maine stopped sending kids in state custody to the school. Several other “out-of-state DHSs said, ‘You know what? We’re not going to send our kids either,'” he says.

Breen says the his department was aware of the “ring” treatment at Elan and that it was a “real issue” 10 to 12 years ago. “We pressed them pretty hard and they agreed not to do it,” he says. “We were certainly led to believe it ceased several years” ago.

Also, he added, in the last year, the DOE has banned the use of restraints and so-called “adverses,” like being hit, pinched or being subject to loud noises.

“I don’t think they’ve been clearly prohibited in the past,” Breen says.

One former resident, who preferred to use only his first name, Mike, says he stayed at Elan between March 1999 and August 2000, and that boxing was still taking place.

“I think it was more for humiliation purposes” than for pain, Mike, 19, says. “Some of it was kind of funny to me.”

It was almost like watching a play, he says. Some people threw reluctant punches. Some people fell to duck swings and hurt their elbows and arms more on the tile floor than if they’d been hit. Others stayed serious, fighting their opponents, until they were worn down and agreed to reform, he says.

‘Doesn’t even mention Elan’

There are about 1,000 special residential schools across the country specializing in everything from fire-starting teens to those with learning disabilities.

From his office in Lincoln Park, N.J., it’s Roche’s job to take referrals from hospitals, prosecutors and the like and recommend facilities to place troubled teens.

There are about 10 schools across the country similar to Elan, Roche says. They’re peer-mediated and are designed for children who have not responded to traditional therapy. Some are locked down facilities. Elan is not.

“I have no, absolutely no problem referring kids to Elan who are appropriate,” says Roche. “It’s a very demanding, challenging and very appropriate program for the kids I refer there.”

With the exception of a few who had serious drug problems, “All the others have responded marvelously,” he added. “It’s a very confrontational environment, but lots of affection as well.”

Since the trial dragged Elan into public view, Roche has gotten calls from parents across the country who are contemplating pulling their children out of the facility. None have yet, Roche says.

Campbell, Elan’s lawyer, said he’s noticed no drop in enrollment or other impacts due to the negative publicity. It was obvious school leaders would like to leave the spotlight behind.

“Did you see the closing arguments?” Campbell asked during an interview last week, referring to the Skakel trial. “(They didn’t) even mention Elan.”

‘Had to soften’

Richard Chick has been Poland town manager for 27 years. He says he’s had little official contact with the school; he doesn’t ever remember being invited in.

Elan was an issue in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he says, when more kids were running away. Some would escape in the wintertime by running across the pond ice. “That didn’t sit well with the people in the area,” Chick says.

Now, “they seem to have better control of the campus,” he adds.

Rielly Bryant, a corporal with the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department who patrols Poland, was last called out to help locate a runaway in June 2001.

Unlike his boxing challenger, who ran away after his drubbing in the ring, Moore says he never attempted to leave.

The Connecticut man started binge drinking at age 14. He had watched the movie “The Doors,” saw how cool Jim Morrison looked swigging whiskey and wanted to drink like that. So he did.

“I was never really a normal kid. I was raised on Ritalin,” Moore says. “I grew into an angry, violent, depressed teen.”

He’d throw things at his parents, break the rules. They put him in psychiatric hospitals. He ran away. “My mother was terrified. She thought I had two weeks to live. I’m not really sure about that,” Moore says.

During his first week in Elan in 1993, like all other students, he had to write a “guilt letter” home, confessing to all the bad things he’d done.

He wrote: “Get me out of here, this is a cult. I swear to God I’ll kill myself if you leave me here.” But his parents didn’t come.

He eventually found Elan was a safe environment to be honest in, Moore says. And there was lots of accountability, which he views as a positive. One of his jobs was processing orders for candy and gum – they were handed out as rewards, as were cigarettes. If students were really good, they earned field trips and visits home.

During his stay at Elan, the dreaded general meetings had gotten more tame than the in-your-face, spit-upon scenes that came out during the Skakel trial. He says people being confronted were allowed to stand behind a broom placed on a floor, where people couldn’t get in close range. “I hear they’ve cut back on them,” he says. “I think the place was under increased pressure and scrutiny and they had to soften.”

One of his most vivid memories of the school happened in Christmas 1994. Elan celebrated all holidays the day before the actual one, under staff supervision.

That year, two students started a petition asking that no encounter groups be held on they day before Christmas. Encounter groups took place twice a week, a chance for students to vent at each other for everything from smelling badly to hurt feelings.

The petition didn’t sit well with staff, he says. Before opening presents, everyone who had signed it were told to stand and be yelled at. “This isn’t a democracy,” the staff hollered. There would be group anyway. The two instigators had to hand over their shoelaces and scrub the floors.

Says Moore, “It was the most Scrooge-like thing I have ever seen.”

Thomas says she isn’t sure if Elan today is any different than 30 years ago. “You have to remember, in the ’70s it was a different world back then,” she says. “I think the military was harder on you and worse on you than Elan ever was.”

She visited Elan in February, thought about moving up here to become a staffer.

“A lot of my peers have asked me, didn’t you not agree with some of the things they did at Elan,” Thomas says. “It doesn’t matter. Even if I didn’t, you’ve got to have faith. I don’t doubt for a minute Elan knows what they’re doing.”

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