Élan School

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Elan logo.png
PO Box 578
Poland, Maine 04274
United States
Coordinates 44°00′27″N 70°23′10″W / 44.0075°N 70.386°W / 44.0075; -70.386Coordinates: 44°00′27″N 70°23′10″W / 44.0075°N 70.386°W / 44.0075; -70.386
Type Private therapeutic boarding school
Opened 1970
Closed 2011
Grades 8–12
Age range 13–18+
Affiliations NATSAP

Élan School was a private, coeducational, controversial residential behavior modification program and therapeutic boarding school (beginning with 8th grade and extending beyond high school completion) in Poland, Androscoggin County, Maine. It was a full member of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP).

Elan was located on a 33-acre (13 ha) campus[1] that was formerly a hunting lodge.[2]

The school acquired some notoriety during the 1990s and early 2000s when former classmates of Michael Skakel, who had attended Élan in the 1970s, testified against him in his trial for an unsolved murder that had occurred about two years before he enrolled at Élan.[3] The school was also the subject of persistent allegations of abuse in their behavioral modification program.[4][5]

On March 23, 2011, Elan School announced it would be closing its doors on April 1, 2011.[6]


Élan School was founded in 1970 by psychiatrist Gerald Davidson, investor David Goldberg, and Joseph Ricci, a college drop-out. Ricci headed the school until his death in 2001, when his widow Sharon Terry took over.[7][8] Maine politician Bill Diamond served as its Director of Governmental Relations.[9]


The school specialized in treating teenagers with behavioral problems. In the program, 'humiliation' was stated clearly as a therapeutic tool, as is following up on such intervention with encouragement and warm support. Students attended year-round.[10] In 2002, a New Jersey educational consultant who had referred students to Elan for 22 years told the New York Times that he would refer only "the most serious cases" to the school, which he said would "take kids who haven't responded to other programs and who are really out of control."[8]

The school's treatment methods were based on the "TC" or therapeutic community modality popularized in the 1960s at facilities such as Synanon, and later at Daytop Village.[11]

In 2002, a New Jersey educational consultant told the New York Times that the school was "certainly not for the faint-hearted." He said "There's lots of confrontation," but added "and yet there are lots of hugs."[8]


Throughout its history, the school was faced with numerous allegations of student mistreatment. In 2001, Details Magazine cited Elan as "among the most controversial of the nation's residential therapeutic communities."[12]

In 1975, Illinois state officials pulled out Mark Babitz, one of 11 children removed from the Élan program, alleging mistreatment.[1]

In 2002 during the trial of Michael Skakel, witnesses testified that beatings and public humiliation were parts of life at Élan during the late 1970s.[1] In trial testimony, former students also described the practice of placing a student in a "boxing ring" surrounded by classmates who confronted the student.[13][14] The New York Times has reported that, at the school, "smiling without permission can lead to a session of cleaning urinals with a toothbrush that can last for hours."[15]

The New York State Education Department, which has paid tuition for special education students to attend Élan School, gave the school a favorable review in 2005.[16] In 2007, however, New York education officials raised questions about the school's practices, alleging in a letter to the school and Maine education officials that Élan students were physically restraining their peers and being deprived of sleep. The allegations prompted the state of New York to threaten to withdraw tuition money for taxpayer-funded students. The school's lawyer contested the allegations.[1]

In March 2016, Mark Babitz of Elan Survivors Inc contacted The Maine State Police who announced they had opened a cold case investigation into the death of former Elan resident Phil Williams, who died Dec. 27th, 1982 after participating in Elan's brutal "ring" where students were forced to fight each other as a means of behavior modification.[17][18][19]


On March 23, 2011, Elan School announced it would be closing its doors on April 1, 2011. The school's owner, Sharon Terry, blamed negative attacks on the school via the Internet. In a letter to the Lewiston Sun-Journal, Terry said: “The school has been the target of harsh and false attacks spread over the Internet with the avowed purpose of forcing the school to close." She added that, despite numerous investigations by the Maine Department of Education that vindicated Élan, “the school has, unfortunately, been unable to survive the damage.”[6]


Elan was featured in Children of Darkness, a critically acclaimed documentary filmed in 1983 that explored the grueling realities of emotionally troubled youth and the various residences and institutions that housed them.

A documentary chronicling the school's history and impact titled "The Last Stop" was released in 2017. The film was directed by an Elan graduate and included interviews from various residents and professionals including Maia Szalavitz.[20][21]

Notable alumni[edit]

  • Tiffany Sedaris, sister of comedians David Sedaris and Amy Sedaris, spent two years at Élan, 1978-1980. She committed suicide in 2013.[22]
  • Michael Skakel[3]
  • Ben Weasel[11]
  • TJ Nilssen, Filmmaker of the Elan School documentary "The Last Stop", a feature documentary about the poignant true story of the Élan School, a controversial for-profit corporation that ran adolescent treatment centers deep in the woods of Maine.[20][21]
  • Mike David, online radio host

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d New York seeks change at Elan School, By Kevin Wack, Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, March 25, 2007
  2. ^ Elan Alum website, accessed February 21, 2010
  3. ^ a b A Miscarriage of Justice: Reform-School Witnesses, The Atlantic, January/February 2003
  4. ^ [1], The Huffington Post, January 2009
  5. ^ [2], The New York Times, June 2002
  6. ^ a b Meyer, Judith. Elan School closing due to low numbers, negative Web campaign, Sun Journal, March 23, 2011. Retrieved on March 24, 2011.
  7. ^ History Elan School, Elan School website, accessed February 15, 2011
  8. ^ a b c Warren St. John, Skeletons in the Classroom, New York Times, June 2, 2002
  9. ^ "Senator Bill Diamond". Maine Senate Democrats. Retrieved August 8, 2014. 
  10. ^ Basic School Approval Report Pertaining to the Elan School, Maine Department of Education, September 3, 2002; archived by archive.org on January 1, 2007[dead link]
  11. ^ a b DeRogatis, Jim (2001). "Screeching Halt". SPIN Magazine. SPIN Media LLC. 17 (3): 124. 
  12. ^ "Bad Company: The Elan School." Details Magazine, [3], November 2001.
  13. ^ Associated Press, Possible motive surfaces in murder trial, May 18, 2002
  14. ^ Moxley case puts school's methods on trial, undated article on MarthaMoxley.com website, attributed to Brian MacQuarrie and A.J. Higgins of the Boston Globe, retrieved November 15, 2009
  15. ^ New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/02/style/skeletons-in-the-classroom.html, June 02, 2002
  16. ^ Special Education Quality Assurance Nondistrict Program Review: Final Report, Élan School, New York State Education Department / The University of the State of New York, November 2, 2005; archived on Élan School website, accessed February 21, 2010
  17. ^ "Login - sunjournal.com". www.sunjournal.com. 
  18. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/03/15/us/ap-us-school-death-forced-boxing.html
  19. ^ "Login - sunjournal.com". www.sunjournal.com. 
  20. ^ a b "Login - sunjournal.com". www.sunjournal.com. 
  21. ^ a b "The Last Stop (2017)". imdb.com. 
  22. ^ Sedaris, David (October 28, 2013). "Now We Are Five". The New Yorker. 

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Maura Curley (1991), Duck in a Raincoat, Menuki Press. ISBN 0-9629522-0-6. An unauthorized biography of the founder of the Elan School, Joe Ricci.
  • Eva Pappas (2006), The Other Son - One Family's Personal War on Drugs, Lagrimas & Clean Slate Publishers Group. ISBN 0-9777187-1-9, ISBN 978-0-9777187-1-9. This book describes Elan's program under a fictitious name.
  • Maia Szalavitz (2006), Help at Any Cost, Riverhead. ISBN 1-59448-910-6. A former senior fellow of the Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University offers a thoroughly researched critique of the troubled-teen industry, which includes an ethical guide for parents with troubled teenagers.