The Horrifying History Of Élan School, America's Most Abusive Boarding School

Parents don't exactly have an easy job. A parent brings a brand-new life into the world and is fully responsible for that life's well-being, health, safety, education, and more. Hopefully, 20 or so years later down the line, such efforts help a child become a happy, whole, prosperous, and rational adult who helps, not harms, other members of society. 

And yet, such outcomes are never fully within any parent's control, or arguably even the child's. Schools and religious institutions, family relationships and childhood peer groups, local and regional economics, politics, and industry, all the way to national culture and even the global stability of civilization itself: all such factors and more shape a single individual. As Simply Psychology explains, psychologists like Urie Bronfenbrenner described this systemic, interconnected, and nested sets of environmental factors as "ecological," and from it built his Ecological Systems Theory of childhood development.

Sometimes, a child is difficult to deal with. At worst, such an individual might be labeled a "problem child" or "troubled teen," terms that often make things prophetically worse. And in the absence of other, better options, some parents might take extreme approaches to steer their child away from self-destruction, crime, addiction, and death.

This is where the Élan School in Poland, Maine comes in. Operating from 1970 all the way to 2011, it promised to rehabilitate children through the most extreme measures possible. More of a cult and sanitorium than a boarding school, its children suffered group beatings, guilt-based "therapy," brainwashing, and worse. 

Snatched from home in the night

As All That's Interesting says, Élan School was the brainchild of psychiatrist Dr. Gerald Davidson, who founded the school in 1970 and left its everyday operations to reformed heroin addict Joe Ricci. In the belief that stricter meant better when it came to student behavior, Ricci build a veritable prison of torture and indoctrination, confinement and isolation, actual bare-knuckled fight clubs, circles of students screaming abuses at targeted students, terror and torment, incessant surveillance, and in some cases, accidental death. 

Towards the beginning of 2017's documentary "The Last Stop," Élan School alumni discuss their reasons for being shipped to the school. Some got involved heavily involved in drugs, some in pranks turned wrong, some stole from neighbors, some were truant and preferred to party, and some were merely defiant towards authority figures. Some were just runaways or didn't have another home. Some of them got sent to Élan through the criminal justice system, and others because their parents directly contacted the school and forked over a $50,000 admission fee which doubled as annual tuition. Once there at Élan, as Ricci himself says in "The Last Stop," the first thing students learn is that there's no escape.

As if this wasn't disturbing enough, parents often colluded with the school to secretly ship their kids there. They were "snatched" in the night from their bedrooms by four "big people" and tossed in a van and driven to the remote woods of Maine.

A factory of abuse and brainwashing

Officially, as WJBQ cites "The Last Stop" Élan School documentary and Nexpro YouTube documentary, Élan School had three rules: "no drugs, no sex, and no violence." All other rules were enforced through public shame, induced guilt, psychological torture, and ironically, physical violence.

Upon entering Élan students were stripped of possessions and also stripped naked, and forced to shower in public in full view of others. Students were assigned jobs, and using a tiered point system could advance from "Non-strength" to "Strength" status and gain privileges that included a no-homework, no-test, threadbare education from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. To do so they had to avoid Non-strength behaviors: smiling, looking out of the window, showing a visible reaction to orders, gazing at the opposite gender, writing or reading without permission, sleeping too long (or too little), speaking too loudly (or too softly), taking too long in the bathroom or shower, contemplating leaving, and more. Letters to parents, an earned right after eight months, were shredded unless they extolled the wonders of Élan, as a former student reports on the I am a Graduate of Elan School Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). Students were also policed by other, higher-ranking students dubbed "expeditors."

Punishments were creatively sadistic: wearing a diaper and bonnet for behaving "like babies," made to bark in response to questions and crawl on all fours while eating from a bowl on the floor, living in a garbage dumpster, and months-long solitary confinement in a furniture-less room.

Beatings in 'The Ring'

If it wasn't clear by now, Élan students spent much of their time — 12 hours a day — being indoctrinated through punishment and humiliation. "General Meeting" was the most common of these methods, followed by "The Ring," as WJPQ, All That's Interesting, and the I am a Graduate of Elan School Reddit AMA explain.

At General Meeting, over 60 students circled around a single student and hurled abuses at the student, who was made to stand behind a broomstick. School staff supervised these incidents, which lasted over an hour, and yelled "Get your feelings off!" at abusers to get things going. The slightest offense could result in a General Meeting, much like The Ring. At The Ring, a single student faced off against multiple other students, simultaneously, in a fight club-like arena. The victim was called the "bully," and his or her attackers were instructed to keep beating until the student was "sufficiently injured." As one could imagine, this led to serious injuries and, on at least one occasion, a possible death that was attributed to a brain aneurysm, according to the Associated Press. Other corporal punishment included student police "expeditors" spanking other students with ping pong paddles and a form of beating called "cowboy kick-ass," where students kept getting slammed against the wall. 

As WJPQ says, Élan manager Joe Ricci even admitted these events to NBC. But like many other aspects of Élan, the school circumvented justice for over 40 years by saying that all such violence happened between students, and was not inflicted by staff. 

The few who fled

So, how could Élan School possibly have stayed open for so long? Its earliest students listened to the Grateful Dead, and its last students to Rihanna — just to put things in perspective. In the end, Élan's sustained existence comes down to lazy and bungled policing by Maine authorities.

WJBQ tells us that reports of Élan's activities started leaking almost immediately after the school opened in the 1970s. Maine law enforcement made over a dozen visits to the school, but each time, as the documentary "The Last Stop" says, the State of Maine was obliged to announce its visit ahead of time. This gave Élan time to clean things up. The one time that authorities from New York showed up unannounced — New York state had been sending students to Élan, too — they found "students restraining other students," students subjected to sleep deprivation, and more. New York promptly stopped sending students to Élan, but the school stayed open.

Interest in Élan's goings-on peaked a couple of times over the years, but to no effect. In 1979 officer Max Ashburn of Androscoggin County Sheriff's Department found a shaken and bruised 16-year-old runaway boy from Élan, according to the Sun Journal. Ashburn, a father of four, was aware of the school's reputation for abuse and followed his gut — though it meant risking his job — and took the teen to hitch a ride with a trucker. Three years later, the 15-year-old student died of the alleged aneurysm. In 1993, student Dawn Marie Birnbaum was found raped and murdered after she'd fled Élan and hitchhiked with a suspected serial killer.

The long-awaited death of Élan

As WJBQ reports, it took exposure from former students to finally kill Élan School off. In fact, the mortal blow started with the very "I am a Graduate of Elan School Reddit AMA" cited by this article, which describes experiences dating to the 1990s. That post appeared in 2010, and four months later in 2011, Élan shut down. Then school director Sharon Terry — who took over for her husband Joe Ricci in 2000 after his death — tried to appease the public by closing some of Élan's more outrageous elements, like The Ring. Ultimately, as she said per The Sun Journal, Élan closed due to "declining enrollment and resulting financial difficulties." Since then, stories from survivors and other sources have continued cropping up online, like those from Reddit user MorbidReality in 2013 all the way to a 2022 forum on Hacker News.

Since Élan School's closure, it's been discovered that its original operator, Joe Ricci, as well as the entire school itself, had ideological roots in the Synanon cult in Santa Monica, California, as the Dark Downeast podcast reports. The Westport Historical Society tells us that Synanon, which as a legal non-profit organization went bankrupt in 1991, employed brainwashing, mental torture, physical beatings, confinement, and more to keep its members in check — just like Élan School. Ultimately, aside from sympathizing with former Élan students, we can take the case of Élan School as a cautionary tale about never trusting what happens behind closed doors.