Moxley case puts school's methods on trial
By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff
and A.J. Higgins Globe Correspondent
POLAND SPRING, Maine - At The Elan School, students are sometimes forced into a ''boxing ring'' to fight classmates or kept under guard in a corner for more than a day or subjected to screams and insults from an entire dormitory.
It is this harsh, confrontational treatment that the school's cofounder believes is needed at times to get through to hard-core troubled teens.
But, as bootcamp images of Elan emerge from the murder case of Michael Skakel, one of its best-known graduates, many are wondering whether the school and its radical techniques go too far: How hard do the world's teenage bad actors have to be pushed before accepting responsibility?
Skakel may well be charged with the 1975 murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley, but the court hearing last week showed that the Elan School also is very much on trial. What happened to Skakel at the school in the 1970s is the core of both the prosecution and the defense.
Some of Skakel's classmates said he confessed to the Moxley slaying while at the school. But his lawyer contends any alleged admissions were attempts to avoid more of the abuse he endured at the school.
And even John Moxley, the brother of the murder victim, has called the testimony about Skakel's two years at Elan one of the case's ''saddest'' chapters.
Nonetheless, Joseph Ricci, an Elan cofounder whose treatment methods have become inseparably bound to the Skakel case, vigorously defends his controversial practices as unconventional but effective.
''These are not your typical public school kids,'' Ricci said. ''Their parents bring them here to succeed when everything else has failed.''
The goal, he said, is to persuade adrift and often-dangerous teens to accept responsibility for their actions. That goal is reached often, Ricci said.
For Skakel, the price of pursuing that goal may have been extraordinarily high. In a ''reasonable cause'' hearing that ended last week in Connecticut, witnesses testified that Skakel was pummeled by classmates, forced to wear a sign that linked him to Moxley's murder, and humiliated by wearing a 5-foot dunce cap at the 200-student school.
According to Sarah Petersen, a former classmate who testified for the defense, the point of such physical and mental abuse was to force Skakel to confess about Moxley.
''It was designed to humiliate him and then to put pressure on him to admit'' to Moxley's death, Petersen said.
Petersen testified that Ricci told Skakel: ''You'll never leave here until you admit you killed that girl.''
Ricci denied this week that he ever tried to pressure Skakel into a confession, an alleged admission that two prosecution witnesses said they heard Skakel make on separate occasions.
Ricci also said Skakel never confessed to him and that the sign he wore did not mention Moxley's murder. Ricci said he would have contacted a lawyer for Skakel if he had confessed.
Ricci accused Petersen and the prosecution witnesses of lying under oath.
''The case is shaping up fine,'' Ricci said sarcastically. ''The prosecution is saying that Michael [confessed] because he was confronted, and the defense is saying that he did it because he was confronted. So, basically, Elan must have committed the crime.
''Obviously, the witnesses in this case just aren't standing up. They're trying to make Elan the scapegoat.''
Ricci said the cruelest cut was when prosecution witness Gregory Coleman, a former Elan student, testified not only that Skakel confessed to him, but that the school was a virtual house of horrors for some students.
This was not true, countered Ricci, who said he borrowed some of his techniques from the California drug-treatment programs Synanon and Daytop. But even Ricci admitted that behavioral measures at the facility would surprise the average public school principal.
''We teach the kids that it's a tough world out there,'' he said.
It can be an equally tough world inside Elan for those who buck the system. While physical abuse, as defined by Ricci, is not tolerated, Draconian consequences face those who refuse to cooperate.
Descriptions of these corrective measures vary widely among former students. They also differ dramatically when compared with Ricci's definition.
The ''ring'' is one such area of dispute.
Alice Dunn, a former student and former staff member at Elan, testified that Skakel had been beaten in the ring by a succession of students until he was brought to his knees, broken and crying. Dunn said the harassment stopped once Skakel told his assailants he may have been involved in Moxley's death, an alleged admission that Skakel's defense attorney said was made simply to stop the beating.
Ricci, however, said the boxing ring is used only to punish bullies and that they are forced to fight a ''champion'' for a limited time.
In another disputed ''ritual of the house,'' as Coleman described Elan's practices, a female student allegedly was guarded in a corner for more than a month. Upon her release, Coleman testified, the student was paddled by classmates until she required hospitalization.
Ricci countered that this punishment for nonconformist behavior does not last more than two days and no one is required to sleep overnight in the corner.
Ricci described Elan's students, who are placed at the school for one to three years, as out-of-control runaways who may have used illegal drugs and committed thefts and assaults.
About half of the students are referred by youth service programs from other states, he said. The rest could just as easily be found in exclusive boarding schools, he added, if not for their bad behavior.
Nestled in a 33-acre lakeside setting with about 15 buildings, Elan initiates its students with a boot camp philosophy that places a premium on respect for others and accountability. For that, parents or state agencies pay Ricci $42,000 a year for each student.
In addition to classes, there are sailing programs, hiking trips, and daylong excursions to build socialization skills, Ricci said.
But controversy continues to dog the school, and Coleman's allegations of physical abuse are not the first to be lodged against Elan. In 1975, Massachusetts and Illinois officials removed children from the facility following such allegations.
A subsequent investigation by the state of Maine concluded no physical abuse had taken place. Massachusetts and Illinois officials responded by returning the majority of their students to Elan, and today they are among 30 states that send teenagers there.
Ricci measures Elan's success by what the students achieve after the program. The 31-year-old school counts doctors, lawyers, teachers, and software designers among its alumni, Ricci said.
Yet, many former students remain skeptical about what they achieved at Elan. Some participate in discussions on Web sites such as ''Elan Survivors,'' created by former student David Hirsh, 31. The Internet address is pub5.ezboard.com/belansurvivors.html.
Hirsh, who operates a recording studio outside Toronto, said many students appeared to respond to the treatment at Elan not because it was working, but because putting up a front of compliance was better than accepting the consequences for resisting.
''Well over 50 percent of the students there at any given time were just resigned to the fact that they'd have to put up with that crap and faked it to just get through it,'' he said.
Former student Peter Moore, who works in the advertising industry, admits that corrective action was necessary for him. His parents sent him to Maine in the early 1990s. However, he is unsure that Elan was what he needed.
''I had a long documented history of attention-deficit disorder,'' he said. ''I was not allowed to take Ritalin, and I was basically screamed at on a daily basis for being unaware or disorganized. They seemed to think that I chose to be that way.''
Yet, others contend the school was the right place at the right time for them.
A Florida man, who asked that his name be withheld, said he benefited from the program and that many of the allegations against the school are overstated.
''The [boxing] ring was rarely used, and it was controlled, and nobody ever got hurt in the ring with those huge boxing gloves,'' he said. ''But who's to say what's physical abuse? ... Even though I hated the place while I was there, I learned to see both sides of a situation.''
Ricci, who is undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer, said he is prepared to stand up for Elan.
''Is it hurtful to hear these things?'' Ricci asked. ''Yeah, it's hurtful. Is it expected? Yeah. Because the defense and the prosecution in this case have the same problem; they have to blame somebody for a whole lot of inappropriate behavior.
''In this instance, it's Elan. But they're wrong, and they'll be shown to be wrong.''