Hidden Lake Academy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Hidden Lake Academy (HLA) was a therapeutic boarding school in Dahlonega, Georgia, United States. It is now shut down.[1][2][3]


The school was founded in 1994 by Dr. Leonard Buccelatto. It was intended to "fill the need for a specialty school to fill the gap between services of residential treatment centers and traditional boarding schools."[4]


New students had typically struggled with homework, depression, anger management, or various addictions. Some students were from outside the United States. The student population ranged from about 15 to 200. Hidden Lake Academy was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS), and the Georgia Accreditation Commission (GAC).[5]

The staff recommended that most of the students attend small colleges or boarding schools, although a few attended larger universities or went back to ordinary high schools, against the school's recommendations.[citation needed][4]

Books were screened, and students were not allowed to possess any literature containing sex or drug references/pictures. Magazines, newspapers, and journals were also screened, and any inappropriate articles were cut out to allow the student to have reading material without negative influences. Incoming and outgoing mail were no longer screened by staff, but some letters were not permitted if they were from friends. The school did not always let students know when they received letters.[6]

Peer groups[edit]

Peer groups, the school's method of group therapy, started with about ten students and one counselor. Students arrived at all times during the school year and were expected to stay for 13–15 months. During that time the students received an education tailored for those with learning differences and/or disabilities, and which included group therapy. The school had extracurricular activities in which students became involved, only if they reached certain levels/"peer groups": soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball, music, art, track, cross country running, tennis, golf, canoeing, and clubs.

Like other behavioral modification institutions dedicated to improving behaviors, Hidden Lake Academy put students through different developmental tracks. Each peer group progressed through the steps of the program. The tracks were known as Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Galaxy. The program ranged from 18 to 28 months; their website stated that their programs ran from 13 to 15 months. The counselor had a choice whether to hold a student back, if he or she was not performing up to the counselor's expectations.

Those who did not progress according to the clinical and educational goals of the school and parents could be dropped into a lower level peer group or sent to a wilderness program. Hidden Lake Academy also had a postgraduate program available for students needing additional structure and/or the credits necessary to graduate from high school.


2006 petition for lawsuit[edit]

On September 11, 2006 three plaintiffs filed a petition for a federal class action lawsuit (Civil action No. 2:06-CV-0146-WCO) against HLA and Len Buccellato on behalf of parents of students who attended the school since January 1, 2000.[7] The case was Jill Ryan, Ron Ryan, Doff Meyer, Robin Brecker, and on behalf of others similarly situated vs. Hidden Lake Academy, Inc; HLA, Inc.; Hidden Lake Foundation, Inc.; and Dr. Leonard Buccellato.

The plaintiffs were clients of Berger & Montague and were represented by Gorby, Reeves, and Peters. The plaintiffs charged that Hidden Lake Academy "employed a number of uncertified teachers and unqualified counseling staff; did not employ at times any licensed learning disability specialist or a registered or properly licensed nurse; allowed unlicensed staff such as secretaries to dispense to students prescription medication; enrolled a number court-ordered, violent and severely disturbed children; and overbilled families for a number of items and incidental charges, among other things."[8]

Hidden Lake Academy defense attorney Martin Quirk responded by saying that it was the result of parents who, after withdrawing their children, were unhappy with not being able to get a refund for the school's tuition.[9] Len Buccellato responded with a letter to parents and consultants stating that "the feelings of the staff at the meetings we have had have ranged from pain as deep as mine to absolute rage that anyone could say those things in light of the countless numbers of students and families we have worked with whose lives have been put back on a positive and productive track... we have been advised by counsel not to comment on the specific allegations at this point and to allow our attorneys respond to the allegations in due course."

Matt Aiken, a former staff member at HLA, wrote a front page article about the lawsuit in the local newspaper, The Dahlonega Nugget. Various letters to the editor were later published. Diane Stephenson, a laywoman highly involved in the local Unitarian Universalist Church, wrote of Hidden Lake Academy's various contributions to the local community.[10] Reverend Barry Bailey, who often visits the school to teach students about local Indian beliefs, wrote a letter saying "When those [plaintiff's] lawyers made their blistering attack they conveniently forgot that Hidden Lake is a last chance boarding academy that offers objectively-defined teenagers an alternative to prison. Such a school is inherent with risks and the possibility of violence and retaliation."[11]

Headmaster Charles Cates also responded to the article, saying that Hidden Lake Academy was "considered the premier institute in this area and has a high success rate... [and the lawsuit] apparently relies on erroneous information provided by disgruntled ex-employees."[12] Clarke Poole also sent a letter to the editor.[13] Poole was once the Senior Admissions Coordinator at HLA. Though he is not a psychotherapist, he became concerned about the admission of students whom he felt to be dangerous and voiced his concerns to his colleagues. He felt that his "concerns were dismissed and I was routinely admonished for raising them. In February 2006, when I was denied a meeting with school management to address issues of grave concern related to the safety of students, it was ethically incumbent upon me to resign."[13] In his letter to the Nugget, besides outlining his record of involvement with the school, he also attempted to dispel rumors that he was the Admissions Director (as opposed to the Coordinator) and that he was involved with the lawsuit.

Hidden Lake Academy replied to the lawsuit, requesting that it be dismissed by the court and filed a counterclaim claiming that the plaintiffs should be obligated to reimburse the school for losses incurred by its involvement in the lawsuit.[14] A hearing to determine if the case qualifies as a class action lawsuit was held on January 31, 2007, and on August 15, 2007, Federal Judge William O'Kelley ruled against the plaintiffs by denying the petition for class action without prejudice. However, on September 9, 2008, Judge Kelly found that the prerequisites for a class action were met and certified the class for settlement purposes.

Coordinates: 34°37′42″N 84°04′16″W / 34.62833°N 84.07111°W / 34.62833; -84.07111

Settlement of lawsuit[edit]

Much of the school's financial troubles stems from a September 2006 lawsuit accusing the school's founder, Len Buccellato, of multiple ethics oversights, including the employment of unqualified instructors, knowingly accepting dangerous students and misuse of school funds. The suit was blamed for a significant drop in enrollment in the ensuing months. Between the time the suit was filed and the following August the boarding school lost about 100 students, reported HLA headmaster Joe Stapp.

In August of 2007. Federal,Judge William C. O'Kelley denied a potential class action suit against the academy based on the fact the school agreed to settle out of court for a reported $400,000. This settlement was to be paid by December 31, 2008.

On January 8, 2009, the attorney for those to be paid in the settlement filed a motion for the court to force HLA to pay up.

On January 19, HLA's attorney filed a response to the Motion to Enforce Settlement and Judgment, citing a "drastic decrease in the student body of Hidden Lake Academy subsequent to, and in my opinion, caused by the filing" of the complaint against the school, "and a continuing barrage of negative emails to educational consultants who in the past referred prospective students" to the school, an affidavit attached to the motion states.

The affidavit also states that Buccellato and the school have attempted to obtain a new loan to pay off both its lien holder (BB&T) and the $400,000 owed to plaintiffs from the original judgment.

The lawsuit was finally resolved when the settlement was paid in full on June 30, 2009.

Creekside Wilderness Academy[edit]

In January 2009 a new branch was started under the name Creekside Wilderness Academy. [15] It shared the same address and facilities with Hidden Lake Academy.

In the news[edit]

May 2007 - An early morning fire completely gutted Hidden Lake Academy's academic building. The cause of the blaze has yet to be determined.[16]

June 2009 - Hidden Lake saw Chapter 11 as a chance to regroup. School owner Buccelatto called the school's opponents "vicious and unrelenting... It became very evident that the goal of the people involved was to discredit, and to ultimately close the school... creating as large a financial burden to the school as possible by attacking [our] referral sources through fear and intimidation. It would be a gross understatement to say that these events did not have an impact on the school. The financial reality is one the school is still reeling from." [17]

July 18, 2011 - Hidden Creek became Ridge Creek School sometime after reorganizing from Chapter 11. Ridge Creek closed its doors by sending an email to parents claiming financial hardships and asking parents to come get their children. No pre-payments of tuition (at least 1–2 months for most parents) were reimbursed, as the remaining staff noted the school would be filing for bankruptcy.

Notable alumni[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ http://secret-prisons-for-teens.blogspot.com/2011/08/last-chapter-of-hidden-lake-academy.html
  2. ^ http://www.myfoxatlanta.com/dpp/news/iteam/I-Team-Ridge-Creek-School-20110708-am-sd
  3. ^ http://www.dr.dk/Nyheder/Andre_sprog/English/2011/08/01/143430.htm
  4. ^ a b "Hidden Lake Academy website". Hiddenlakeacademy.com. Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  5. ^ SACS CASI Accredited Schools in Georgia, Last update: Jan 15 2008
  6. ^ HLA August 2007 Parent Handbook
  7. ^ "206cv146 comppt1.pdf" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  8. ^ Berger & Montague's website
  9. ^ front-page article about the lawsuit, The Dahlonega Nugget, September 21, 2006
  10. ^ "Letter to the Editor: "The Other Side of the Story: The Good HLA Does" by Diane Stephenson". Thedahloneganugget.com. 2006-09-27. Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  11. ^ "Letter to the Editor: "Hidden Lake Needs Community Support" by Rev. Barry Bailey". Thedahloneganugget.com. 2006-09-27. Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  12. ^ "Letter to the Editor: "Do Not Judge School Based on Story, Suit" by Charles Cates". Thedahloneganugget.com. 2006-09-27. Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  13. ^ a b "Letter to the Editor: "I am Not a Disgruntled HLA Ex-Employee" by Clarke Poole". Thedahloneganugget.com. 2006-10-24. Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  14. ^ "Response to Lawsuit" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  15. ^ Homepage of Creekside Wilderness Academy[dead link]
  16. ^ "Dahlonega, Lumpkin County: The Dahlonega Nugget. The local newspaper for Dahlonega, Georgia > Archives > Breaking News > Blaze destroys Hidden Lake academic building". Thedahloneganugget.com. 2007-05-24. Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  17. ^ sunshine (2009-06-04). "Dahlonega, Lumpkin County: The Dahlonega Nugget. The local newspaper for Dahlonega, Georgia > Archives > News > Hidden Lake officials see Chapter 11 as chance to regroup". Thedahloneganugget.com. Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  18. ^ Terrible End for an Enfant Terrible, By Alan Feuer and Allen Salkun, New York Times, July 24, 2009