Troubled Teens Tell Their Stories

Forbes spent months interviewing kids, counselors, parents, psychiatrists and medical researchers. The students profiled here are minors. To protect their identities, their real names have been withheld; they picked their fictitious names themselves.

Life at Camp

A white-knuckle drive up a mountainside leads to another Brown complex, CEDU Mountain Schools in Running Springs, Calif. The 80-acre campus is flanked by national forest and covered in 100-foot-tall sugar pines.

Buildings are a hodgepodge: The main house looks like a ski lodge, the art building is a barn. Inside, cushy couches and stone fireplaces warm up classrooms. Acquired for $72 million in 1998, CEDU was founded as a nonprofit school for runaways in 1968.

The name is derived from "See-Do" — that kids first see, then do, the right thing. A Sixties mindset still prevails. Counselors impart lessons from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. On a recent visit, a dozen kids gather at a piano to sing John Lennon's "Imagine." The fresh-faced teens look like they jumped out of a J. Crew catalog.

But then they begin to talk.

"I was really scary. People would cross the street to avoid me," Ashley, 14, says with a glint of pride. At age 12 she went "gothic." Tall and thin, she shrouded herself in black clothing, fishnet stockings and a black trench coat. She dyed her hair jet-black with streaks of red. She wore a spiked dog collar and pierced her ears, nose, chin, navel. Behind the barbed wire Ashley felt frightened and alone. "My clothes reflected how I felt on the inside. I was angry, lost and confused."

In seventh grade she was bedridden for months with Lyme disease, taking a deluge of required drugs and swallowing barbiturates to get to sleep. Her mother cared for her at home, but her father, founder of a Silicon Valley high-tech firm, worked long hours. When Ashley went back to school, she had an I.V. in her arm, and other kids teased her. She reached out the only way she knew how: by looking as alienated as she felt. Ashley's mother sent her to a new school and a shrink.

The doctor prescribed Prozac, but she wouldn't take it — she'd been on too many drugs when she was sick (nor did she use illicit drugs, she says). She cut class and fought with her parents. One night, she screamed that she wanted to kill herself. Mom called the cops, who handcuffed the 12-year-old and took her to an adult psych ward where she was held for more than a week. From there, she went to a wilderness program, then to CEDU.

She has spent two years at CEDU. Today it is hard to picture the old Ashley. Counselors unplugged her piercings, and her dyed hair has grown out to its natural brown; she wears it in a ponytail. In her dorm she keeps seven cute Care Bears. Her gothic scowl has yielded to a soft smile, and her black duds have been replaced by CEDU's uniform of khakis and a collared shirt. The idea: without the shield, kids find healthier ways to communicate.

Counselors use rules to break down defiant kids. Students make "agreements" to avoid drugs, profanity and sex (even mere kissing). Break a rule and they must chop wood or dig a stump. When Ashley first arrived she spewed curses at teachers. For each offense she had to rake leaves or shovel snow on Sundays.

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