NATICK, Mass. — “Matt” arrived at the Brandon School as a young teenager, depressed, seriously misbehaving in school and setting fires in the woods, outside his home and, once, in his bedroom.

He was not pleased to be at Brandon.

“I thought it was crap,” he said. “I thought it was the worst place ever.”

Nearly a year and a half later, the 15-year-old from Massachusetts is happier, less often in trouble. He copes with boredom and frustration through therapy, art and gardening rather than fire-setting.

“Now I see that (Brandon) is helping me and the ways that I am benefiting from it,” he said. “I’m actually seeing a difference from the past.”

Founded in 1966 as a day school for children with learning disabilities, Brandon has grown into a full-service day school and residential treatment program for 80 to 90 boys from around the country. Most children — ages 7 to 17 — live at the school, getting help for sexualized behaviors, severe behavioral problems and emotional issues.

And, in a specialized program, fire-setting.

Brandon started its program for young fire setters almost 10 years ago after a Massachusetts child was referred to them for treatment. The school had success with that child and, at the same time, began to realize how many of its other boys had fire-setting issues, even those who were in treatment for something else. More children came to Brandon for help with fire setting. And then more. Few other residential programs in the U.S. specialized in young fire setters, who can kill or maim with a single match.

“Most schools are scared to death to work with kids who set fires,” said Executive Director Timothy Callahan.

Brandon wasn’t.

Today, about 25 percent of Brandon’s kids are either enrolled in the fire-setting program or have gone through it before moving into treatment for other issues. Most are referred to the school by social service agencies or the court system after a history of fire setting. Some have been involved in devastating fires or close calls. A few boys, injured in their fires, have gone to Brandon straight from hospital burn units. Although the majority of boys are from New England, Brandon takes kids from all over the country.

For most, it’s a place of last resort.

“We’re the extreme end of the continuum,” said Joe Tondorf, chief operating officer. “The only thing more extreme is a locked psychiatric unit or prison.”

Young fire setters first go through a 45- to 60-day assessment. During that time, they go to school and live at Brandon. After the assessment, Brandon staff create a treatment plan. Some children go home for that treatment. Others remain.

Residential stays range from nine to 18 months.

Brandon tries to make the environment normal and child-friendly. The sprawling, 35-acre campus has a swing set, gym, sports field, basketball court and school with separate wings for elementary, middle and high school students. Brandon maintains two houses off campus and four houses on, including two dedicated to fire setters. Boys share bedrooms — usually two kids per room — and each house has at least one TV room, where boys can watch movies and play video games. Everyone has chores. Everyone can earn privileges, like a later bedtime or going to see a ballgame.

But for all of its home-like atmosphere, Brandon is clearly not home.

Houses separate boys by age and reason for treatment, and some boys ultimately stay not in a house but in a residential unit on campus. Even in the houses, all bedrooms have motion detectors, and staff members do bed checks every 15 minutes. Locked doors are common at Brandon — meeting rooms, staff areas, kitchens and classrooms all require keys, even when those rooms are within a house. Brandon is staffed with a cadre of case managers, therapists, psychiatrists, educators, medical personnel and others — 200 staff members for fewer than 100 kids. School is mandatory. Therapy is mandatory. Family participation in therapy is often mandatory

Brandon can be sometimes comforting, sometimes confrontational.

“We’re really not for everyone,” said Rebecca Porter, admissions coordinator. “But we’re really necessary for those other kids.”

And for young fire setters, Brandon seems to work. Of the 150 to 200 boys treated for fire setting since the program started, only one is known to have started a fire after treatment, and then only after the boy was traumatized. Fire setting, Callahan said, is one of the most curable behaviors at Brandon.

“There’s almost no recidivism,” he said.

Some current Brandon boys credit the program with helping them.

“It saved my life,” said “David,” a 16-year-old from Massachusetts. “I needed it. I needed a firm kick in the butt.”

Before Brandon, David was using drugs and starting fires. After 18 months in treatment, he got the support and skills to change his behavior. Now done with Brandon, he’s planning to go back to high school and then to college for business.

With young fire setters, Brandon’s treatment largely centers on five stages each boy must complete: program orientation, accountability, processing thoughts/feelings/behaviors, making amends and reconnection. Through those, boys find out why they start fires, how they can avoid or cope with those triggers and what they can do to prevent themselves from starting fires.

“Matt” — a hyper-articulate teenager who says things like “Let me just elaborate on that” — learned through Brandon that he was using fire as a way to vent. Now he vents to his therapist or copes through art or gardening. Small, green plants line his bedroom window sill at Brandon. His walls are covered in bright watercolor art.

Although it’s been hard being away from home, he said it’s been worth it.

“I’m still working on it. We already took the top layer off and we’ve started getting into it,” he said.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.