Netflix docuseries on abuse allegations at New York boarding school prompts fresh investigation

A Netflix docuseries spotlighting abuse allegations at a long-shuttered boarding academy for teens in rural northern New York has prompted dozens of new complaints to the local prosecutor and a fresh investigation.

“The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping” started streaming last month. The three-part series by filmmaker Katherine Kubler, who was sent to the Academy at Ivy Ridge for 15 months, features former students describing an oppressive institution where teens were barred from going outside, looking out the window or smiling, and where staff violently restrained and sexually and psychologically abused students.

Former students say the documentary, which has been viewed over 11 million times, validates their experiences after years of not being believed.

“In 20 years, I never spoke. And that documentary gave me a voice,” said Steve Caccamo, who was sent to Ivy Ridge in 2003 at 16.

St. Lawrence County District Attorney Gary Pasqua said over 50 complaints have come into his office, including allegations of physical, mental and sexual abuse at Ivy Ridge. Pasqua, elected in 2017, said none had come in before the documentary began streaming.

After the documentary, officials in New York cleared a path for former students to apply for crime victim compensation and a state agency that runs a local psychiatric center put some employees on leave amid the allegations against former Ivy Ridge staffers.

Ivy Ridge was established in 2001 and closed in 2009 on the site of a former college near Ogdensburg, New York, one of multiple institutions affiliated with the now-defunct World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, or WWASPS. Ivy Ridge was marketed as a boarding school for teens with behavioral issues. A state education official in 2006 called it, “principally a behavior modification center.”

In 2005, police were called to the academy when rioting students smashed windows and overturned furniture, with some fleeing the campus.

A few months later, then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer found Ivy Ridge had grossly misrepresented its academic credentials and issued unauthorized high school diplomas. Under a settlement, 113 graduates received partial tuition refunds totaling more than $1 million. The academy’s roughly 400-student enrollment plummeted, and it closed four years later.

Police investigated some complaints, such as improper medical care, but they could not be corroborated when the academy was open, Pasqua said. Former students have said they couldn’t communicate freely there.

Recent allegations are mostly from former students and include parents as well, Pasqua said. He’s working with state police and the county sheriff’s office to assess the complaints for in-depth interviews.

While there is no time limit for prosecuting certain serious sex crimes, it’s likely many complaints won’t be pursued; New York requires most felony prosecutions to begin within five years and the academy has been closed for 15.

“If there is something there that we can prosecute and we’re confident that the allegations are true, and then that’s what we’re going to do,” Pasqua said.

Former students say they want similar institutions shut down and the abusive staffers barred from jobs where they watch over vulnerable people.

Kelly Heise, 37, said in a statement to Pasqua that Ivy Ridge officials cited a nonexistent court order to keep her there after she turned 18. The Connecticut resident recounted traumatic abuse, saying she was once forced outside for an hour in January in a T-shirt and a skirt, on her birthday.

She sees the documentary as a breakthrough after hitting “brick wall after brick wall” in seeking accountability.

“That shadow, that lingering monster that we’ve felt like we’ve been under for so long, is gone,” said Nicholas Chiofalo Jr., 35, who was sent Ivy Ridge when he was 16 and says he was abused physically, mentally and sexually.

Five former Ivy Ridge workers and managers who were named in the documentary did not respond to calls or emails from The Associated Press.

WWASPS founder Robert Lichfield said in a statement that his companies provided marketing services for schools, but he neither owned nor operated Ivy Ridge.

“I didn’t hire or train the staff or employ professionals at Ivy Ridge but I find it extremely unlikely that the vast majority would be anything but caring and committed to assisting the students,” Lichfield wrote.

Now, not only can former Ivy Ridge students apply for compensation, including counseling costs, in cases that lead to criminal charges, but also when prosecutors say a crime was committed beyond the statute of limitations, according to the state Office of Victim Services, which can extend the usual one-year window for good cause.

The state Office of Mental Health, saying it takes abuse allegations seriously, confirmed it placed an undisclosed number of people on leave “as we assess this matter.” The agency runs the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg, but it wouldn’t confirm where the individuals work now or in the past.

Pasqua said that just because someone worked at Ivy Ridge, it doesn’t mean they’re guilty of a crime or a coverup, and that it’s important to let the investigations play out. Former staffers’ names and pictures have been posted online and officials have expressed concern over reports of harassment.

Caccamo said a reunion and peaceful protest is planned in Ogdensburg this month. The former campus is closed off, but Caccamo hopes to be able to briefly enter one of the buildings when he’s back.

“I want to walk in that place knowing I have that power to walk out at any time,” he said.

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