HomeTop StoriesFormer Ivy Ridge teen recalls witnessing regular staff violence, being abused himself

Former Ivy Ridge teen recalls witnessing regular staff violence, being abused himself

Apr. 20—Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of child abuse.

OGDENSBURG — A man now in his late 30s who spent about a year at the Academy at Ivy Ridge as a teen remembers his time there as being violent and turbulent.

He said that in the boys side of the facility, physical abuse was a regular part of life and was often inflicted by staff members who seemed to enjoy what they were doing. He also remembers at one point being grabbed by the throat by Jason G. Finlinson, the director of the boarding facility.

Jack Wollen, who now lives in Tennessee, grew up in Staten Island. He was detained at Ivy Ridge against his will from March 2005 to March 2006.

“People expected some kind of military school. It was not that. It was just getting the shit beat out of you,” he said in an interview with the Times.

The now-shuttered Ivy Ridge, which was open from 2001 to 2009, is the focus of the Netflix documentary series “The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping.”

The filmmakers detail the physical, mental and sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of Ivy Ridge staff when they were sent there as teenagers in the 2000s. They were only released after completing a program that was purposely designed to be difficult to work through, or if their parents pulled them out.

In the documentary, former students gain access to the abandoned building and discover a trove of documents and surveillance videos left behind that corroborate their stories. The documentary sheds light on former staff members, including Thomas A. Nichols, who was the academy’s public relations coordinator and is now St. Lawrence County’s Republican elections commissioner.

Ivy Ridge marketed itself as a place for parents to get help for troubled teens where they can eventually receive a New York state high school diploma. A New York State Attorney General’s Office investigation determined the diplomas were bogus and Ivy Ridge was nothing more than a behavior modification center.

Wollen said he was sent to Ivy Ridge at age 16 during what he described as a rebellious teenager phase.

“I was definitely more like a problem kid at home. There was a bunch of issues there. I wasn’t listening to the parents. I wasn’t into drugs. It was more a rebellious phase for me,” Wollen said. “I had found out father was actually stepfather, so I was acting out.”

He said he ended up eventually running away from home and falling into “a destructive little pattern.”

Wollen isn’t sure how his parents came to find out about Ivy Ridge. He was driven there one morning when he believed he was being taken to his regular high school.

“We get in the car and (my mother) went and picked up my uncle that lived up the street from us and an uncle who lived a couple blocks over. They had me in the backseat with the child safety lock on and proceeded to drive up to Ogdensburg,” Wollen said.

His experience at Ivy Ridge is still a highly emotional and difficult subject to broach. “I already have chills talking about this,” Wollen said early in the interview.

He said the place seemed all right from the outside. When he walked inside, the first thing he saw was a group of boys walking in what he learned was called “line structure.” When moving from place to place, they were forced to march single file, military style, pivoting around corners, and they weren’t allowed to look anywhere except straight ahead. Things as minor as movements of their eyes were scrutinized and punished.

“One of the guys in line structure looked at me and mouthed the words ‘turn around and run,'” Wollen said.

The teens were all strip searched as soon as they were admitted.

“Your first time, your first interaction with someone, beside telling you to say goodbye to your parents, is get naked, squat, cough,” Wollen said.

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In order to leave the program, the kids had to accumulate a certain amount of points to work their way through a six-tiered system. Infractions of any of the dozens and dozens of rules took points away, which could potentially erase months or years of accumulated progress.

When Wollen first got there, he was assigned what staff called a “Hope Buddy,” who was responsible for helping him learn all the rules.

“Three days to learn is not enough time,” he said. “It takes a while for people to get broken in enough to work it and gain points.”

Points were difficult to gain, which Wollen said was by design.

“Everything was ‘manipulation’ there,” which was a category of major rules infractions, Wollen said. “Your letters were monitored, you’d get a manipulation if you asked to go home.”

“If it wasn’t strictly program speak, you were getting a manipulation for it,” he said. “We weren’t allowed to write down peoples’ phone numbers or addresses … we couldn’t have that information or it’s considered a run plan.”

Although Ivy Ridge tried to pass itself off as offering a curriculum that could lead to a high school diploma, Wollen said there was only one certified teacher there and the course material was all religious in nature.

“There was no ‘let’s try to teach you and let you learn it,'” Wollen said, adding that it was all self-paced through a home-schooling computer program called Switched-On Schoolhouse.

“It was evangelical home-school curriculum … very much Bible-based education,” Wollen said.

Wollen said he witnessed staff physically abusing teen boys and experienced violence himself at the hands of staff members.

In “The Program,” the filmmakers name a former employee, George Tulip, who they characterize as highly vicious. One segment shows security footage the filmmakers obtained showing Tulip grabbing a boy of about 13 by the neck and lifting him into the air off of his feet.

“I was restrained by Tulip a couple of times. He had his little buddy Erik Brossoit,” Wollen said. “They were like a tag team. If you were getting restrained … and they were walking around, they put their hands on it.”

Wollen said Tulip and Brossoit often put their hands on the boys “even if it just took one person to take that kid down … even if there was absolutely no need for it.”

“I saw a couple five-foot-nothing kids have someone just slam them on the ground and put their knee on there, and it was not needed,” he said.

“I won’t say it was a daily occurrence,” Wollen said. “It happened often enough that it all just kind of blends together.”

“There were bad ones. There were things that didn’t seem so bad,” he added. “Some people tried to fight the dorm parents and it didn’t go well.”

In the documentary, former Ivy Ridge boys talk about a room in the facility that had no surveillance cameras in it.

“If you wind up in that room, at some point in time you’d just be sitting there, nothing was going on. Three to four staff members would talk to you and if they didn’t like how it went,” physical abuse happened, Wollen said.

He said the staff members would “slam their heads off the radiator, slam them against the walls, slam them down on the ground and sit on them, shove their knee in your back, shove their knee into your neck. They were tying to calm you down, trying to get you to comply.”

“It seemed for a lot of us, it seemed (the staff) were in just to take out their frustrations, and some of them seemed to enjoy it,” he said, although there were other staff who did not resort to violence.

“There were some that would restrain consistently,” he said. “Some were doing it to help calm someone down … Others saw the opportunity and it was grab your back, kick out the leg, and get you down.”

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“That was one of the more difficult things to see,” he said.

Wollen was there for the May 16, 2005, riot in the boys dorms. In “The Program,” a man only identified as Quintin describes how on that night he incited the riot, which happened in response to the violence and abusive treatment. Wollen said that as the riot fizzled down, he ended up getting grabbed at the throat by Finlinson, the director.

“The way Quintin talks about it (in “The Program”), how it started, that’s exactly how it went,” Wollen said.

In the bunks in the moments leading up to the riot, “you could feel, it was like buzzing. A lot of us knew about it. A lot of us didn’t know about it.”

“Quintin, upstairs, he came out and yelled, ‘RIOT!’ and that scream carried all the way upstairs, down,” Wollen said. “People were getting up out of their bunks … trying to kick out metal grates.”

“I know on the first floor of dorm one, people were going into the rooms, the little back area, they kicked the metal grate out and that’s how some people were escaping … bolted into the woods,” according to Wollen. “They were able to overpower the staff and get to the rest of the facility.”

“The idea, as (Quintin) said, was to destroy the computers. If they could successfully do that, what was the point of coming to school?”

“I jumped out the window at first and thought about trying to run. And I realized where we were and it was not conducive to what was going on. I found a way back in, to not get into that type of trouble,” Wollen said.

Eventually, the staff started corralling the boys into the gym.

“Dorm parents were grabbing kids and were slamming them against the wall. They (staff) had weapons, like a bat,” Wollen said, adding that a staff member hit him in the ribs with something.

“I wound up going to the front of the school, once everything started to wind down,” Wollen said. By then, rescue squads had arrived to take any of the boys who were injured to Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center.

“I remember (Jason) Finlinson grabbing me by the throat and (he) pushed me against the wall. He said, ‘what do you think you’re doing, fella?’ I said, ‘going to the hospital.'”

Finlinson recently wrote a letter to the Times in which he claims the allegations in “The Program” are inaccurate. It can be read in its entirety at wdt.me/DrSzEf.

Wollen recalls shortly after the riot ended trying to tell the EMTs and hospital staff “what happened, but not what happened.” He feared further consequences back at Ivy Ridge if he described what was happening there in direct, grounded terms.

“I couldn’t tell them what the hell was going on,” he said.

Wollen said that after the riot, it was “very, very, very tense inside the program.” Although they weren’t successful in their ultimate objective of shutting the place down, they did make a point to staff that they could outpower them in numbers.

“Before the riot, it was very much if you (expletive) up you got the shit beat out of you … the worse the (expletive) up was, the worse the ass beating was.”

The day after the riot, “we wound up sitting in one of the rooms and watching a movie. It was quiet. The entire place was you couldn’t talk. They wanted to make sure no one was trying to make plans.”

“It didn’t stop, the restraints … all that stuff still happened. They knew if we really wanted to, we could in fact do something.”

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“They made it to where it seemed they were being more aware of (being harsh). They toned down with the rules … especially the smaller little rule violations,” Wollen said. “For that week (after the riot), it felt a little more relaxed, and then they ramped everything back up again, but it wasn’t as bad as it was before.”

“It was never great, but it did get a little better,” he added.

Wollen eventually left after another nine or 10 months. His parents pulled him out and brought him back home to Staten Island.

“I don’t honestly know why they pulled me. I’m assuming it was financial. The place wasn’t cheap.”

After settling back in to regular life, Wollen eventually started to reconnect with other people who had spent time at Ivy Ridge. While confined there, staffers forbid the teens from exchanging any contact information. They made threats that to contact each other after leaving could result in them being sent back.

“It was drilled in our head we were not allowed to talk to program kids when we got out. We were threatened with going back to the program,” he said. “Of course each and everyone one of us did it. That’s how this came to be. We ended up finding each other after the fact.”

In “The Program,” the filmmakers show an email written by Nichols, the PR coordinator, in which he discusses tracking students through newly emerging social media like MySpace. A separate document retrieved from Nichols’s former office and reviewed by the Times confirms that claim, although Nichols himself denies having used social media to spy on anyone.

“We were told inside the program we weren’t allowed to talk to other kids when they got out,” Wollen said. “Seeing that email just confirmed what everyone was thinking at the time.”

He said that finding other survivors was cathartic. When Wollen got back to regular life again, no one believed him when he talked about the level of abuse that happened at Ivy Ridge. He ended up using Facebook to reconnect, which by 2008 had expanded its availability from college students only to include high school students.

“I remembered so many peoples’ names. I just started trying to find everyone on Facebook,” Wollen said. “I wound up going in and inviting a bunch of people from this group. It was a very specific group of people who all shared the same experience because getting out of the program and going back to your friends group wherever you were from, and trying to tell people (that) the people who were supposed to care for you and guide you beat the shit out of you. They don’t believe it. You end up internalizing it. That’s what a lot of us did.”

“At 16 years old, you go out and told (your story to) other kids that were 16 and going into high school. It’s wild to believe you were in a facility where the people meant to take care of you are just not.”

“Some of the best friendships I have to this day are because of what we went through,” he added. “It was all a very unique shared experience that nobody else understands. I think the big thing with the documentary … people thought we were lying … all this is coming to light now and people are seeing it. We’re being heard. The validation is wonderful. Personally, I’m just really hoping with the momentum and the traction right now, something can finally be done.”

The St. Lawrence County district attorney and sheriff are investigating abuse allegations from Ivy Ridge. Any former Ivy Ridge students who want to report physical or sexual abuse to law enforcement can contact the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office at 315-379-2222 or the St. Lawrence County District Attorney’s Office at 315-379-2225.

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