The stories coming out of Mount Bachelor Academy were shocking. Kids being deprived of sleep, cursed at by other students and staff members, being made to take part in humiliating "role-playing" exercises - including, in at least one case, having to perform a "lap dance" for another student.
The stories were bad enough, and apparently credible enough, for the state Department of Human Services to order the high-priced private school shut down in November 2009.
Now, less than a year later, the state agency seems to have decided that things at MBA weren't really so bad after all. Under terms of a settlement announced last week, DHS is ending its investigation of the academy in return for MBA agreeing that the investigation was justified and dropping its appeal of DHS's findings to date.
"MBA agrees that DHS had a reasonable basis to investigate the allegations of abuse and neglect, and to seek corrective actions," a DHS official said in a statement announcing the deal. "Mount Bachelor Academy is closed and, by all accounts, will remain closed."
Did the people who ran MBA learn anything as a result of the investigation? Are they chastened by the experience and determined to do better?
You wouldn't think so from the statements emanating from the office of Phil Herschman, president of Aspen Education Group, which operates MBA and a slew of similar schools and wilderness programs across the country offering "help for troubled teens," as Aspen's website describes them.
"The DHS' withdrawal of its order suspending MBA's license supports our position that they did not have justification for that order in the first place," Herschman said in a statement.
As for MBA staying closed, think again. "Despite the tragic circumstances of Mount Bachelor's closure, we hope to open a new, even more successful school on the MBA campus in the future," Herschman said.
So it's onward and upward for Mount Bachelor Academy, or whatever it's called in its new incarnation. But what will happen to the kids who find themselves sent there?
This wasn't the first time the state had felt compelled to investigate the academy; similar charges led to an investigation in 1998. And the Redmond-based SageWalk Wilderness School, another part of the Aspen empire, came under investigation after a teenager collapsed and died on a hike in September 2009.
Any organization that deals with hundreds of kids - especially emotionally troubled ones - is going to make occasional mistakes and even have occasional tragedies. What's infuriating about Aspen is that it doesn't seem able (or willing) to learn from them - and neither does the state. Year after year, similar problems keep turning up. And the state investigates ... and nothing really happens. No consequences, no penalties, no significant changes. Back to business as usual.
Business as usual may be good enough for the state, but it shouldn't be good enough for parents who entrust their kids to Aspen's programs - and it sure as hell isn't good enough for us. Here's THE BOOT to DHS for letting Mount Bachelor Academy skate - again.