These For-Profit Schools Are ‘Like a Prison’ Camelot Education takes the students that public schools have given up on. But some current and former students say its discipline goes too far.
This story was co-published with Slate.
Teenagers at Paramount Academy sometimes came home with mysterious injuries.
An alternative school for sixth- through 12th-graders with behavioral or academic problems, Paramount occupied a low-slung, brick and concrete building on a dead-end road in hard-luck Reading, Pennsylvania, a city whose streets are littered with signs advertising bail bondsmen, pay-day lenders, and pawn shops. Camelot Education, the for-profit company that ran Paramount under a contract with the Reading school district, maintained a set of strict protocols: No jewelry, book bags, or using the water fountain or bathroom without permission. Just as it still does at dozens of schools, the company deployed a small platoon of “behavioral specialists” and “team leaders”: typically large men whose job was partly to enforce the rules.
Over six months in 2013 and 2014, about a half-dozen parents, students and community members at Paramount Academy — billed as a “therapeutic” day program — complained of abusive behavior by the school’s staff. One mother heard that staff restrained students by “excessive force” and bruised the arms of a female student, according to email exchanges between Camelot and the district. Another mother, Sharon Pacharis, said she visited the school to complain about manhandling and was told, “That’s just what we do.” Camelot’s own written reports to the district documented one incident in which a teenager was scratched and another in which a bathroom wall was damaged. Both resulted from “holds” — likely a reference to Camelot’s protocol for restraining students during a physical encounter.
Camelot tended to blame the students in its weekly reports to the district, calling them “out of control”; school officials referred several to police. It was, after all, a place partly for students whom the district had deemed too disruptive for a traditional school setting.
But an incident on April 24, 2014, abruptly shifted the focus to Camelot’s staff.
Ismael Seals, a behavioral specialist, walked into a classroom with several loud and boisterous students and commanded them to “shut the fuck up,” decreeing that the next one who talked would get body-slammed through the door, according to a subsequent criminal complaint. Moments later, Seals fulfilled his promise. After 17-year-old Corey Mack asked and received permission from his teacher, Teresa Bivens, to get up to sharpen his pencil, Seals pushed him repeatedly against a door and then shoved him into the hall, where a school surveillance camera recorded most of the rest of the incident. Seals, 6 feet 4 inches tall and 280 pounds, lifted Mack, 5 feet 8 inches tall and about 160 pounds, by his shirt and swung him into the wall headfirst, later pinning him to the ground as other staff members arrived, according to court documents.