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Friday, May 31, 2002

Ex-students at Skakel trial describe Elan as 'horrific'

Copyright © 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

 

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  Related Story:
Elan School defends program

 


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As witness after witness at the Michael Skakel murder trial took the stand in the past two weeks to describe events at the Elan School during the late 1970s and early 1980s, jurors and the public have been given a picture of what the school in Poland, Maine, may have been like.

In a word: horrific.

Young people in trouble with the law or their parents, and often involved in drug or alcohol abuse, were sent to the school and put on a strict regime of work, group therapy, peer pressure to reform, public humiliation, screamed reprimands and disciplinary beatings, according to witnesses at the trial.

The testimony about the Elan School's history could be pivotal to the high-profile case, because defense attorneys are arguing that extreme conditions at the school 20 or more years ago created an atmosphere in which anyone could be made to say anything.

Some former Elan students are testifying for the prosecution, saying they heard Skakel confess to murder. Other former Elan students are testifying in Skakel's defense, saying Elan school officials threatened and even abused students to the point where confessions and statements made there should be viewed skeptically, at best. Closing arguments in the trial are scheduled for Monday.

In his opening arguments on May 7, Skakel's defense attorney, Michael Sherman, told the jury that the Elan School was "like a mix of the Hanoi Hilton and Stalag 17."

Former Elan students have been star witnesses at the trial of Skakel, a nephew of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy who attended the school from 1978 to 1980. The late Joseph Ricci, founder and executive director of the school, told students at a "general meeting" in 1978 that Skakel may have killed a Greenwich, Conn., girl in 1975, according to witnesses.

Skakel, now 41, was arrested on the murder charge in January 2000. Renewed publicity about the crime helped turn up several Elan students and others who said Skakel made incriminating statements about the murder.

Two former students say Skakel admitted his role to them. Other former students disagree, saying they never heard Skakel admit to the crime. They recall that he either denied killing the girl or said he was so intoxicated on alcohol and drugs that night that he didn't know. Some of the former students who testified think Skakel is guilty. Others say he's innocent. Some are just suspicious.

But whatever they testified about Skakel, they were consistent in their views of the school they attended: They described it as a place designed to terrorize them, with beatings and humiliation regular features of life.

Alice Dunn of Portland was at the school from 1976 to 1978 as a student, and until 1982 as a member of the staff. In testimony, she described the school's discipline process as "part of the general plan of humiliation that would lower someone's self-esteem and keep them in a general state where they were in constant terror."

One witness, Michael Meredith of New York City, attended Elan in the 1980s after Skakel had left. He said the school at that time was abusive emotionally but not physically, and he believed it had reformed some of its practices by then.

The current administration of Elan rejects the harsh descriptions.

In response to questioning from various news organizations this week, the school's lawyer and spokesman, John Campbell of Campbell and Associates, distributed a five-page statement defending the school and rebutting some of the accusations against it.

Campbell said Tuesday that he is not authorized to make any further statements about the controversy.

"Over the past 30 years, the Elan School has helped thousands of students," the statement reads. "Hundreds of social workers, special-education personnel, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors and therapists have reviewed the Elan program and its successes and have continued to send students to Elan."

A review team appointed by Maine Gov. James Longley in 1975 - before Skakel attended the school - said Elan students "usually expressed newly found feelings of dignity, self-assurance and mental well-being, and they attributed these feelings to the treatment they were receiving."

The Elan statement quoted the panel as reporting it found "no evidence of unjustifiable denials of civil liberties or mistreatment."

According to the statement, "Elan's appointment calendar books from 1978 and 1979 (while Skakel and the witnesses were at the school) show that virtually every week of the year there were reviews of the program at Elan by physicians or regulatory officials from all over the country."

Elan was founded in 1970 as a treatment center and school for troubled youths by Ricci, who was executive director of the school in the 1970s and 1980s. Ricci, a former drug addict who had no academic degrees in the field of therapy, later bought the Scarborough Downs racetrack and ran for governor. He died in January 2001.

"A lot of his role (at the school) was to scare the crap out of people," said Charles Seigan of Highland Park, Ill., testifying at the Skakel trial last week. Laughter erupted in the courtroom after that comment, but he continued: "I mean, seriously, that was (Ricci's) role, and to be the man, the dude, the main guy. . . . He liked it, too - to be a god.

"Joe Ricci would just get really upset when somebody wasn't doing what he wanted them to do," said Seigan, who was at Elan for 18 months, starting in 1978. "Sometimes he lost his temper and made it quite horrific on some people."

The school's statement pointed out that, when Ricci died, "51 senators and representatives in the Maine Legislature adopted a special resolution in honor of Mr. Ricci recognizing his 'energy, dedication and service to his community and the state' and 'his many achievements, including co-founding the Elan adolescent treatment center.' "

Skakel and all of the former Elan students who testified at the trial were at Elan 3, one of several units at the school. Usually 40 to 50 students lived at Elan 3 in separate male and female dormitories. The school had about 150 students at the time, witnesses said.

Students would get up about 7 a.m., have breakfast, then work for most of the morning at various jobs around the campus. The afternoons were often devoted to group therapy sessions of various types and the evenings, from about 6 to 10 p.m., to school.

Students were ranked in a rigid hierarchy, much like a military school. Higher-ranking students typically screamed at those in lower ranks whom they were supervising, witnesses said.

"It was just a lot of screaming and yelling that would go on during the day," Seigan said. "The structure of the house was to yell and scream all day to provoke a reaction from people. . . . It was more of a peer-pressure modality - treatment modality - at that time."

For major violations of the rules, the entire campus would be convened in a "general meeting" - which was something like a pep rally, with forceful criticism aimed at an individual.

" 'General meeting' was probably the scariest word you would hear," Seigan said.

The purpose of general meetings, he said, "was basically to scare the heck out of the residents and make sure the person who was (the subject of the meeting) didn't do it again, and the people watching would never do what he did because the punishment was not worth it."

Taking drugs, having sex, drinking alcohol or running away were all reasons for a general meeting, former students said. But they could be held for other reasons, too.

After Skakel fled from the school and was returned, he was prepared for his first general meeting for days in advance, Dunn said.

"They had left him in a corner of . . . the dining room of Elan 3," she testified. "He had to sit for an hour and stand for an hour for three days, with basically no sleep."

General meetings could run from 45 minutes to two hours, Dunn said, although another former student, Michael Wiggins of South Carolina, recalled some that lasted far longer.

"There was no warning," Seigan said. "It was yelled many times. You dropped what you were doing, and you just high-tailed it into the dining room and sat, and you just looked forward, and you didn't say a word and waited for direction."

People would stomp their feet and clap their hands until the person "being sacrificed to the gods of therapy" was brought in and made to stand on a stage at one end of the dining room, Seigan said.

Dunn recalled that the dining room echoed "like a cathedral." The student who was the focus of the general meeting would be kept in a room nearby, not close enough to hear what was said, but close enough to hear the racket, Wiggins said.

"I was never a victim of this - and I believe that is a good word, 'victim,' " he said. "I can only feel it would be something horrific for someone to go through."

For Skakel's first general meeting, Dunn recalled Ricci standing with an inch-thick file folder in his hands.

"He was very intimidating. . . . Referring to some documents, he had a file in his hand he was looking at, and kind of reading incidents from that as he was confronting Michael," she said.

Ricci indicated through questions to Skakel that Skakel was somehow involved in the murder of Martha Moxley, and Ricci accused Skakel of killing her, Dunn said.

At first Skakel denied it, which seemed to make Ricci lose his temper, she said.

At various points, some students were encouraged to rush up toward Skakel and yell in his face. This typically happened several times during any general meeting, the former students testified.

"They get up and run at you and slam you up against the wall, and poke their fingers in your chest, and yell at you so loud you can't even understand what they're saying," Wiggins recalled.

Dunn testified that in yelling at someone, there was plenty of opportunity to manage to spit in the subject's face, and some students would do it on purpose.

If a student who was the subject of the general meeting wasn't giving the proper response to school authorities at the meeting, they would often order the student to bend over to be spanked or take part in a "boxing ring" - short bouts of boxing with another student.

The boxing was done with boxing gloves and headgear. There was no actual roped-off "ring," but people would form a human circle around the boxers.

"You would go into the ring for one-minute periods and you would basically fight," Dunn said, although Wiggins remembered rounds lasting three minutes.

Skakel's case was typical, Dunn said. After a round he would be asked to admit to the murder, and when he continued to deny committing it, he would be put back in for another round with a new, fresh person.

While the boxing was going on, people were encouraged to cheer, Wiggins said. "It's just, you know, 'Hit him hard! Hit him hard! Get him! Get him! Get him!' "

"The person in the ring could never win," Dunn said, because the process would be repeated with fresh opponents.

Skakel lasted for six or eight rounds before he finally changed his answer to "I don't know," and the boxing stopped, Dunn said. "That particular day, it's the only way that it (the boxing) stopped."

Former Elan student Elizabeth Arnold described Skakel's general meeting as a session in which he was "brutalized."

Asked by Skakel's defense attorney if the victim would be "beaten to a pulp" in the boxing ring, Seigan answered, "That didn't happen at Elan 3, generally."

The statement just released by Elan quoted from the 1975 report on the school by the Maine review panel, which defended the school's use of "boxing rings."

The panel was quoted as stating, "One of the cardinal rules of the Elan program was that the use of physical violence, by either a staff member or a resident, is strictly outlawed. . . . Only acts of repeated physical violence on the part of residents resulted in a person being placed in the ring where rounds lasted about one minute and the participants are evenly matched."

Several former students were asked about Kim Freehill, a slightly-built girl at Elan who was spanked so hard that a helicopter was called in to airlift her to a hospital for treatment.

"I watched them beat Kim until she was bruised from the back of her knees to the top of her shoulders with open sores across her buttocks," Dunn testified at a pretrial hearing in June 2000. "And I watched her retreat into a shell where she just wasn't even there as a person. . . . I've never seen somebody hurt that badly."

Longer-term punishment would generally follow the general meeting, Seigan said. One punishment was to be "shot down," or stripped of all privileges previously earned at the school. "You were put into shorts generally, and no shoes, and you were made to scrub floors all day long and clean out trash bins," he said.

Dunn said cardboard signs were generally used when administrators wanted students to admit to some problem. Skakel's sign after the general meeting read, "Confront me on why I killed Martha Moxley." Wiggins remembered Skakel's sign "went down to about his shins and over his shoulders."

Students wore their signs during all waking hours, and had to stand and read their own signs aloud before each meal in the dining hall for weeks following a general meeting. After six weeks, Skakel's sign was removed.

"Most people that were there wore signs," Seigan said.

Students were encouraged to confront those who were wearing signs. Dorothy Rogers of Asheville, N.C., recalled one group therapy session in which Skakel was confronted.

"One student stood up and said, 'How does it feel to beat a girl to death with a golf club?' " Rogers testified.

Dunce caps had to be worn by students who received D's or F's during weekly school grading periods, other former students testified. For one week of bad grades, a student would wear a dunce cap 2 or 3 feet high, Dunn said. For two consecutive weeks of bad grades, the dunce cap would be about 5 feet high. The cap would be worn all day.

Most students wore them at some point, Seigan said.

Perhaps the most severe punishment given to students was something called a "cowboy ass-kicking session," Seigan said. He said it was "nothing more than a beating . . . a physical beating."

"None of the staff did it, but they allowed it," Seigan said. He said officials at the school "encouraged it and promoted it. . . . It was a passion, almost."

David Gurliacci is a United Press International correspondent covering the Skakel trial.


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