The DeSisto School was a pair of therapeutic boarding schools founded by Michael DeSisto, DeSisto at Stockbridge School in Massachusetts (operated from 1978 to 2004) and the DeSisto at Howey School in Florida (operated from 1980 to 1988).
The DeSisto at Stockbridge School was a private therapeutic boarding school for high school students in Stockbridge, Mass. Founded on August 18, 1978 by Michael DeSisto, it closed in 2004, amid allegations by state authorities that the school endangered the health and safety of its students.
Michael DeSisto, after being dismissed as director of the Lake Grove School on Long Island, N.Y., raised $180,000 in advance tuition fees and donations from the parents of students who supported his vision, and encouraged him to open a new school "where he could put his philosophy into practice". In 1978, Mike DeSisto was able to get approximately one-third of all the Lake Grove student body, and faculty to leave with him after he was fired by Lake Grove's management. These original staff and students served as the nucleus of the new DeSisto st Stockbridge School. The school was then established on the 300-acre (1.2 km2) former campus of the old defunct Stockbridge School (a.k.a. The Hanna Estate and Bonnie Brier Farm), in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts, near Tanglewood Music Center, and the Stockbridge Bowl. The DeSisto school's program placed heavy emphasis on discipline, structure, and psychological therapy.
On April 14, 1980 DeSisto opened a second campus in Howey-in-the-Hills Florida named the DeSisto at Howey School. Once again DeSisto, like in the Lake Grove experience a couple of years earlier, moved about one-third of the student body and staff down to Howey. This would have important ramifications down the road. The DeSisto School was losing its most experienced staff members, and those few who remained were split between Howey and Stockbridge. New faculty hires had to sign a two-year contract. In practice many stayed far less than that. Many "Grovers" had five or more years of experience. They liked the DeSisto School, and had a deep understanding how the school's complicated system worked. This is in stark contrast to a typical new hire who found out about the job from the classifieds of The New York Times. DeSisto originally envisioned a string of schools nationally and internationally based on the principles of Gestalt Psychology, and his own therapeutic model. DeSisto stated that the Stockbridge campus would be his "flagship". DeSisto was once in negotiations with the New York City school system to open a school in the Bronx. The DeSisto School would develop a reputation as the place that celebrities, the rich, and political elites could send their children who had difficulty living at home, and functioning in conventional secondary school environments. However, about 20% of the students were not from wealthy families, and received funding from their local school districts as special needs students, or their parents/guardians endured financial hardship to send their children to the school.
In the late 1970s, and the early 1980s, DeSisto and the DeSisto School were favorably featured in articles in Life, Time, and People magazines. DeSisto made a number of appearances on national television with his students, including The Today Show. The DeSisto School was often mentioned on Joey Reynolds's radio show. Michael DeSisto was a regular guest. Mr. Reynolds was also a fundraiser for the school, and had one of his children enrolled there.
In 1987 DeSisto opened a college on the Howey campus, named DeSisto College. The experiment was short-lived though when the local government objected. The DeSisto School, and some of its students, sued and appealed in federal court unsuccessfully for the college to continue its operations.
The annual tuition for The DeSisto School in 1978 was $10,000 for room and board excluding costs of therapy and other miscellaneous fees, and expenses. The DeSisto School was a 365-day-a-year program. Some students were offered trips during the summer months both domestically and to Europe, as well as an academic summer school, a performing arts program, or manual work program on campus. At its peak in the late 80s the DeSisto School had a combined enrollment of approximately 300 students on the Stockbridge and Howey campuses. By 2004 tuition had ballooned to $71,000, and enrollment had dropped to below 30 students before the school's closure.
Quite early on, the school had problems with the commonwealth Department of Education which withdrew its accreditation after questions arose about the school's treatment of "special needs" students. The school sued in 1983, and won back its accreditation.
In 1986, the DeSisto School received national media attention with the case of Heather Burdick, from Old Bridge, New Jersey, Burdick was sent to the Stockbridge campus, and ran away from the school after only a few weeks. She told people from her hometown a mixture of stories about her experiences at the school; some were true, and others untrue. A group of parents from Burdick's hometown tied yellow ribbons around trees, and started a "Free Heather" movement. They sought to sue The DeSisto School for illegally detaining Heather, but the action failed. Heather Burdick's parents then sued their neighbors for invasion of privacy, libel, and slander. The DeSisto School subsequently successfully counter-sued, and after recovering $550,000 in legal expenses was awarded $41,000 for damages. The group of parents then attempted to sue Heather for misrepresenting her circumstances. In 1990 Burdick's parents were awarded $259,000 in damages for emotional distress and invasion of privacy.
On November 15, 1988, The Boston Globe reported that Michael DeSisto, and The DeSisto School had been sued 23 times for breach of contract and fraud. The same Globe article also reported that Michael DeSisto denied falsifying records of the Howey campus' graduation rates.
In 1988 The Orlando Sentinel reported that the DeSisto School's claim of accreditation by the National Association of Independent Schools was false. Michael DeSisto responded that, "low-level staff members were responsible". Mike DeSisto's résumé also stated he had been a faculty member at Elmira College, in Elmira, N.Y., and at Adelphi University, in Garden City, N.Y., when he had never had been a faculty member at either institution. DeSisto also claimed he had worked as a consultant for the Free University of New York at Stony Brook. According to Jeremy Weis, an official with the New York Bureau of Academic Information and Reports, the state agency with which all universities must register, "I've never heard of this university". Elmira payroll supervisor Mary Fetyko said, "DeSisto never worked there." At Adelphi, administrator Margaret Elaine Wittman said, "there are no records of DeSisto having been a faculty member, the man is completely foreign to us, the fact that he would say this on his vita is incredible."
On November 15, 1988, the Orlando Sentinel ran an article, titled Reports Raise Questions About Desisto(sic) Drug Policy. The article charges that, "critics say drugs have been handed out in an almost capricious manner". The school responded that, "that all drugs used are prescribed and carefully monitored and that no problems have surfaced". Nevertheless, as early as, March 1981 the Massachusetts Office for Children cited school staff members in Stockbridge for permitting untrained dormitory parents to distribute prescription drugs.
In November 1988, The Orlando Sentinel ran a three-part expos'e about the DeSisto School and Michael DeSisto, titled Desisto(sic) Went Far On Fake Credentials: "Who is Michael DeSisto? For years, Howey's most controversial resident has claimed a lot of impressive academic and professional credentials, many of which are false. The real story is one of firings from teaching posts and inflated representations of his professional stature.Yet those credentials are a significant aspect of the almost overwhelmingly positive publicity he has received—on the Today show, in Life, Time and People magazines, and in numerous newspaper articles—and the subsequent financial success he has achieved with his private preparatory schools." In response to complaints made by Michael DeSisto that the articles "presented an unfair picture of him and his schools". On October 7, 1990, the Orlando Sentinel published a follow-up article titled New Information On The Desisto(sic) Schools. It is the Sentinel's policy to review all such complaints "in a spirit of fairness". The Sentinel found that, "the presentation of one story in the three-day series may have led to the unintentionally misleading conclusion that his entire career was built on false credentials." It is interesting of note, that about a year after the publication of this article with DeSisto's rebuttal about his credentials, it was discovered that Michael DeSisto did not have a Master's degree as he had long claimed.
The DeSisto at Howey School was not without its problems, either. A group of students under the aegis of the DeSisto School sued Howey-in-the-Hills over zoning issues related to the incipient DeSisto College. The town of Howey-in-the-Hills was awarded $203,279.27 in attorney fees and $17,194.12 in costs. The case of DeSisto College, Inc. v. Town of Howey-in-the-Hills, 718 F.Supp. 906 (M.D.Fla. 1989), and its appeals, are often cited and used as precedent where the plaintiff's claim is frivolous because it has no basis in law, the plaintiff rejects any reasonable offer to settle, the trial court dismisses the case without trial, and the plaintiff does not offer any novel legal theories. In 1993, after years of pursuing the defunct DeSisto at Howey School, the town Council of Howey-in-the-Hills agreed to accept a cash and property settlement worth about $80,000, much less than the total judgment amount of approximately $250,000.
In 1989 the United States Department of Labor brought a $1 Million lawsuit against the school on behalf of former staff members demanding back wages and damages.
One of the more controversial practices endorsed by Mr. DeSisto and the school was the use of regional "parent councils" that parents of students were required to attend. Missing one of these meetings resulted in that particular parent being forbidden to visit their child for a specific period of time. Another controversial rule forbade parents from contacting their child, or letting the child back into their parents' house if the child had run away from the school.
In 1991, DeSisto authored his only book: Decoding Your Teenager(How to understand each other during the turbulent years). After its publication, some journalists published articles questioning whether DeSisto held a master's degree in psychology from the University of Massachusetts, as he claimed. In fact the University of Massachusetts doesn't even offer a master's degree in psychology, and only has a doctorate program. DeSisto later admitted to not possessing the Master's degree, and said the error was due to a "low-level assistant", who had mistakenly placed it on his résumé.
In 1993 Alfonso Saiz a DeSisto dorm parent was sentenced to four to five years in state prison for sexually molesting six DeSisto students. A 1996 DSS investigation found three cases of abuse and neglect of nine students.
On July 6, 1996 The Boston Globe ran an article titled,"URGED TO REBUFF SON, PARENTS SAY HE WAS RAPED WHILE ON THE RUN", the father of a former student said his son was raped and attacked on the road during Hurricane Andrew, after his parents adhered to the school's "street therapy" policy.
On January 29, 1999 two workers at The DeSisto at Stockbridge school were arraigned in Berkshire Superior Court on a single count each for abuse or neglect of a disabled person resulting in bodily injury. These charges arose after the staff members allegedly did not make sure a patient taking the drug Lithium remained properly hydrated. This resulted in a Lithium overdose and the student's hospitalization. Investigation resulted in the charges being dropped for these two staff members, and the blame affixed to higher ranking staff, and licensed medical personnel.
In 1999, DeSisto produced an off-off-Broadway musical titled Inappropriate with Lonnie McNeil and Michael Sottile based on the journals and life experiences of the student performers. The show also had a run in Los Angeles in the year 2000 with an eye on turning it into a film. This, however, did not pan out. On December 6, 2004 the composer of Inappropriate, Michael Sottile filed a lawsuit in Berkshire Superior Court against the DeSisto School seeking the recovery of almost $350,000 in damages. Six months previously an arbitrator, in a default judgment, found in favor of the plaintiff Sottile; that he had not been paid for his services.
Author Roger Kahn reports in his memoir Into My Own (2006) (p. 261) that the school's tough love policy, "led to at least one fatality, when a boy put off campus mid-winter, froze to death on an icy Berkshire Hill". Mr. Kahn's son committed suicide in 1987 shortly after leaving the school without graduating. 
Pinal County, Arizona Sheriff and 2012 Republican Congressional candidate Paul Babeu is embroiled in controversy concerning events that occurred at the DeSisto School while he was its executive director and headmaster 1999-'01.
Following a long legal fight with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts over licensing, allegations of child abuse, a Commonwealth-imposed enrollment freeze, and accusations of failing to create a safe environment for its students, the DeSisto at Stockbridge School chose to voluntarily close in June 2004.
A month previously, officials from the state Office of Child Care Services ordered DeSisto administrators to suspend their admissions process. In a letter, Commonwealth officials charged the school had "an environment that endangers the life, health, and safety of children enrolled."
Frank McNear, DeSisto's executive director, told the Boston Globe at the time, that the school could not run properly without its customary admissions process. "They did us grave financial damage when they closed our admissions," McNear said. "We can no longer fight this. They've been saying they want to close us, and they succeeded."
- Therapeutic boarding school
- Crazy Therapies
- Attack therapy
- Large Group Awareness Training
- Gestalt therapy
- Human Potential Movement
- Group psychological abuse
- Family therapy
- Fritz Perls
- Destructive cult
- Residential treatment center
- Milieu therapy
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