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Staffers at Jamaican school for troubled teens charged with abuse


Four employees of a school for troubled teenagers in Jamaica were arrested and charged with child abuse Friday in an ongoing investigation into the American-owned facility.

Jamaica’s Child Protection and Family Services Agency removed eight American boys, ages 14 to 18, in February from Atlantis Leadership Academy, along the southern coast of the island country, after abuse allegations came to light during an unannounced welfare check. Two have since been returned home, and a third is expected to come back to the U.S. this week. The rest are being held in group homes in Jamaica, according to attorneys assisting the boys, as child welfare authorities ensure they can be safely returned to their parents.

Jamaica’s St. Elizabeth police arrested five men, according to a spokesperson for the Jamaica Constabulary Force. Four of the men — ages 30 to 51 — were charged with assault occasioning bodily harm, cruelty to child and assault at common law.

The men remain in custody, the spokesperson confirmed, and the fifth may be charged pending further investigation. It is unclear whether they have hired legal representation. 

Randall Cook, the academy’s founder and director, responded to the charges in a statement to NBC News on Monday. “ALA is appalled at the hatchet job that is being done to our reputation and deny all the allegations that have been coming at us after over eight years in operation,” he said. Cook was not arrested.

Cook has worked for decades in the so-called troubled teen industry, a constellation of boarding schools, wilderness camps and ranches for children struggling with mental health and behavioral issues. The industry has come under increasing scrutiny by activists and lawmakers who say many such programs abuse children in their care.

Child welfare officials and law enforcement have not released details about the alleged abuse at Atlantis Leadership Academy; Michael McFarland, an attorney for the family of one of the boys still held in Jamaican custody, said the children said they were beaten at the school by staff members. The boy’s mother said she had not been allowed to call him during the nine months he had been placed there, and photos showed he had lost a significant amount of weight during that time.

NBC News first reported on the unfolding situation last month. Last week, celebrity Paris Hilton flew to Jamaica to draw attention to the boys’ allegations. The charity arm of Hilton’s media company, 11:11 Media Impact, has also helped arrange legal assistance for the children. Hilton has become an activist in recent years, pushing for increased oversight of youth treatment facilities like the one she was placed in as a teen.

“Atlantis Leadership Academy is a perfect example of the risks involved in placing youth abroad,” Hilton said at a news conference last week in Treasure Beach, Jamaica. It is not “a one-off program,” she added. “This is a global issue that requires systematic change.”

The boys who remain in custody will be the subject of a hearing later this week.


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