Aspen Education Group is an American company that provides therapeutic interventions for adolescents and young adults, including wilderness therapy programs, residential treatment centers, therapeutic boarding schools, and weight loss programs. Since November 2006, Aspen Education Group, with corporate offices located in Cerritos, California has been a division of Bain Capital's CRC Health Group, based in Cupertino, California.
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Aspen Education Group, Inc. was formed in December 1997 as a spin-off of College Health Enterprises. In 1998, Aspen was reported to have annual revenues of $28 million. That same year, the Sprout Group and Frazier Healthcare Ventures of Seattle purchased major interests in the company. In 2002, Aspen obtained an investment of $15 million from Warburg Pincus and $48 million or more in loans from CapitalSource and Caltius Mezzanine. For 2006, it projected revenue of $150 million. In late 2006, Bain Capital acquired Aspen Education Group for $300 million. Private equity investors were attracted to the business because, unlike most educational companies, its revenue comes from payments by private individuals rather than from government sources. In 2005, the New York Times reported that analysts estimated that companies like Aspen had profits between 10 and 20 percent of their revenues.
In the 2009 timeframe Aspen closed six programs. In March 2011, Aspen announced its intention to close five programs and consolidate three others citing "reduced demand for therapeutic schools and programs in today's economy". The closed programs include Bromley Brook School, New Leaf Academy of Oregon, NorthStar Center, Aspen Ranch and SunHawk Adolescent Recovery Center. In addition the program at Aspen Achievement Academy merged into Outback Therapeutic Expeditions. Youth Care of Utah merged into Island View Residential Treatment Center, and Passages to Recovery moved to the SUWS Adolescent Program to expand the services offered there. In July 2013, Aspen announced that five of its programs (Academy at Swift River, Stone Mountain School, Talisman Academy, Adirondack Leadership Expeditions, and SUWS Adolescent & Youth Programs of Idaho) would close later that summer.
Active programs are listed in the table below, sortable by name, type or location. Most programs are members of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP); several have additional affiliations, such as the National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camping.
Controversies & Criticisms
The Aspen Education Group in 2005 was the target of criticism related to the large revenues its programs generated, and the charge that the provider takes advantage of parents in desperate situations. The Group has been closing programs since then, citing the difficulty in keeping enrollment numbers up, such as when the Oakley School announced on its website in May 2017 that it would be closing.
Complaints of abuse and torture in Aspen programs
In 2009, the state of Oregon shut down two teen programs run by Aspen. State investigators found nine cases of abuse and neglect at Mount Bachelor Academy, including incidents of "sexualized role play," in which teenage girls were allegedly forced to give lap dances during therapy sessions. Because Mount Bachelor and its director threatened costly lawsuits, Oregon's Department of Human Services softened the language of the report. Aspen claims the allegations were false.
In a lawsuit filed in 2011, 17 former students of Mount Bachelor Academy allege claims for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, battery, breach of contract and negligence arising out of their treatment at the therapeutic boarding school. Aspen Education Group is among the defendants in the litigation. The plaintiffs seek a total of $26.0 million in the abuse lawsuit.
Two more suits were filed in November 2011 and January 2013, respectively, by 14 former and 13 former students, respectively, also alleging abuse. A total of $23 million in relief in the second suit and a total of $19.5 million in relief in the third suit. Aspen, also among the defendants in these two suits, intends to vigorously defend the pending lawsuits.
In 2009, neglect led to the death of a teen at the SageWalk wilderness program owned by Aspen. 16-year-old Sergey Blashchishen died of heatstroke on his very first school hike. One summer morning, the boy suited up in an 80-pound backpack; by afternoon, the heat had topped 80 degrees, and he was soon staggering, drifting off the trail, and complaining of dizziness and exhaustion. Staffers thought he was faking his symptoms and failed to call 911 until his pulse had stopped; that death is the focus of a negligent homicide investigation.
In 2010, a mother and her son sued Aspen alleging that while the son was a student at a boarding school owned by Aspen, Cedars Academy, he was sexually assaulted and threatened by a fellow student. The same year, an action was brought against Aspen by a former student at a program owned by Aspen alleging that in July 2006, while in Utah, she engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a former shift-supervisor at Aspen Ranch.
In 2008, a 16-year-old girl enrolled at the Bromley Brook School became involved in a sexual relationship with teacher Steven Peters. The girl asserted administrators knowingly ignored the signs of an inappropriate relationship, failed to take action once the relationship was confirmed by numerous students, and were uncooperative with criminal investigations of the teacher. During the investigation, a counselor at the school admitted she was aware of inappropriate behavior by the teacher for some time and reported the information to both the counseling director and the academic director, but no disciplinary action or further investigation was taken by Bromley Brook School or its staff. The 40-year-old teacher subsequently pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of a minor.
On August 1, 2011, the girl and her father filed suit against CRC Health Group, Aspen, the school and employees. The plaintiffs claimed the defendants were negligent, careless and reckless in their hiring, training and supervision of the teacher, their care, supervision and treatment of the girl, and in their failure to properly investigate and report the misconduct allegations. The father asserted the boarding school breached its contract with him by failing to provide a safe educational environment and proper treatment, and failing to properly investigate and disclose the teacher's sexual misconduct. The plaintiffs further asserted Aspen and the other defendants were vicariously liable for the actions and negligence of their employees. The plaintiffs also asserted Aspen's and the school's failure to provide a proper education to the girl, a disabled person under federal law, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C.S. $ S 12181 et seq. The plaintiffs asserted an assault claim against the teacher as well. The father and daughter sought compensatory and punitive damages, attorney's fees, and costs of suit. A settlement was reached with Aspen and the other parties, and the case was dismissed on June 25, 2012.
In 2004, a 14-year-old boy died at Aspen's Lone State Expeditions wilderness program. During the program, Matthew Meyer and his group hiked several miles in 90-degree weather. A combination of excessive heat, a constrictive uniform, and Matthew's obesity caused his body to overheat. He suffered a condition called hyperthermia, which is the most severe form of heatstroke and requires immediate medical attention. His mother, Crystal Manganaro, says "his body was literally burning up from the inside." But instead of taking the boy's situation seriously, program staffers admitted in a deposition they thought Matthew was joking. His complaints of numbness in his legs were ignored. They told him he was having an anxiety attack when he experienced shortness of breath. Then they dumped water on him after he vomited and collapsed on the ground. Matthew Meyer died an hour later at the hospital. Because camp administrators would not tell the boy's mother what happened to her son, it took three and a half years of investigation and litigation to reveal the truth. In 2006, a wrongful death lawsuit was brought against Aspen Education Group over the incident. Aspen later settled the case out of court.
In 2012, a mother sued Aspen Education Group alleging that her daughter was "tortured" at Turn About Ranch, Aspen's residential treatment center in Escalante, Utah. The complaint alleged that staff at the residential treatment center subjected the 15-year-old girl to hours of stress positions, threats of suffocation, exposure to animal abuse and regular public humiliation. On December 11, 2013, the case was dismissed under the two-year statute of limitations that applies for claims involving a health care provider.
In April 2014, a mother claimed in court that her teenage daughter was taken from Texas by a human trafficker and locked up at a secret "private prison" in Utah, where she was made to perform "mindless tasks of blind obedience." The complaint states that "[o]nce confined, no contact with the outside world is allowed, except with the persons transferring custody to the prison. Contact with family members or friends is not allowed, and even contact with the family member or agency that transferred full and complete custody to the prison is monitored, and the inmate knows that any disparaging remark or complaint about the prison will be punished by a loss of all privileges earned, meaning having to start at the bottom all over again to rise from level to level by successfully completing mindless tasks of blind obedience."
In January 2014, Aspen Education Group was accused of "slavery", "abuse", and "false imprisonment" in a lawsuit by the family of a teenage girl who claims she was berated on television by Dr. Phil and then sent to a residential treatment center owned by Aspen where she was falsely imprisoned, filed a civil complaint in federal court. The girl and her mother appeared on the "Dr. Phil" show in February 2013. In the episode, the teen admitted to having sex with adult men she met online, which the family called "bizarre and dangerous conduct" in their lawsuit. To help the family, Dr. Phil then paid for the daughter to enroll at Aspen's Island View Residential Treatment Center. In their suit, the family calls the facility a "private prison" where their daughter was deprived her of freedom, privacy, education, and subjected to "involuntary servitude, and unjust unusual punishments." In one incident, the daughter apparently refused to obey staff members who told her to get off of her bed. When staff members tried to pull her off, her right arm "was badly and perhaps irreparably broken, and its main nerve severely damaged," the lawsuit states. The family also claims the teenage girl's constitutional rights were violated and she was falsely imprisoned, as well as alleging conspiracy and fraud.
In 2013, the New York Post former students of Copper Canyon Academy, which is owned by Aspen, describe confrontational and humiliating tactics, such as being forced to re-enact traumatic experiences, including rape, in front of their classmates. Former students of CCA surveyed at CCASurvivors.com describe experiences of torment, abuse and intentional medical neglect resulting in lifelong struggles with symptoms of PTSD.
With the cost of Aspen programs ranging from $200-$500 per day (amounting to $73,000 - $182,000 annually), and length of stays averaging from one month to two years, monetary concerns tend to arise for those funding treatment.
Deceptive marketing practices
Educational consultant Tom Croke has criticized Aspen for its marketing practices and for closing programs without sufficient regard for the harm done to students whose promised services were being disrupted. In a blog posting first published in May 2010, he expressed "grave reservations" about referring clients to Aspen programs in view of the company's loss of key staff and its record of abruptly closing programs. He noted, however, that in its 2011 program closures, Aspen had "been somewhat more careful about transitioning the affected residents of the facilities being closed," and that he was continuing to consider Aspen programs for some clients. Yet in April 2014, he provided an updated review on Aspen and again expressed on his website that he "cannot be confident that their facilities will not compromise the best interests of patients/ clients in order to increase earnings." His website cautioned "families not to enroll in their sons and daughters in the longer term former Aspen Schools and programs without adding a contractual provision that gives the family financial recourse in case of closing before the needs of their son or daughter have been met." As for schools and programs that are no longer owned by Aspen, he included that [f]amilies should not hold the Aspen name against those schools and programs."
The Wellspring diet has been criticized by some lay observers. Wellspring is no longer Aspen owned. It has been sold to an organization known as "RiverMend."
Treatment research lacks good science and questionable effectiveness in Aspen Education Group's programmes.
Two reports are widely cited in Aspen program marketing and promotional materials: Report of Findings from a Multi-Center Study of Youth Outcomes in Private Residential Treatment (Aug 2006) and A Multi-Center, Longitudinal Study of Youth Outcomes in Private Residential Treatment Programs (April 2007; not publicly available, summary of select findings available via marketing materials). A conflict of interest exists, because Aspen funded the studies and owns the programs in them.
In news and popular culture
Several Aspen Educational Group programs have been featured in the media:
- An article in the UK Sunday Mirror described the experiences of a teenage girl from England who attended Aspen Achievement Academy.
- The British television series "I Know What You Ate Last Summer" featured six obese teenagers attending Wellspring in California.
- The British TV documentary Britain's Youngest Boozers, broadcast October 25, 2005 featured the Aspen program SUWS of the Carolinas.
- Aspen Achievement Academy was featured in the third episode (February 8, 2006) and SUWS in the fourth episode (October 4, 2006) of the UK reality TV show Brat Camp.
- SageWalk (not yet owned by Aspen when aired) was featured in the American version of Brat Camp.
- Aspen Education programs have been featured multiple times on the Dr. Phil show in the United States.
- Passages to Recovery and NorthStar Center were featured on A&E Television Network's documentary series "Intervention".
- Aspen Education Group official website