Once-rebellious teens are causing a ruckus, this time as adults.
Thanks to Paris Hilton, social media has been hearing a lot more about #BreakingCodeSilence, a viral movement organized by former “troubled teens” who were sent away to boarding schools and boot camp-style behavior-modification programs, including Provo Canyon School in Utah.
The movement has been around since 2019, but has lately received a surge in interest with the release of Hilton’s YouTube documentary “This is Paris.” The doc, out Monday, highlights how Hilton’s experience at one of these programs impacted the rest of her life.
Now, fans are wondering what happened to the 39-year-old “The Simple Life” star and her peers at schools like these.
Here’s a catch-up on #BreakingCodeSilence.
What is the troubled teen industry?
According to the Breaking Code Silence website, the troubled teen industry is “a vast and highly profitable network of programs and facilities that advertise treating, rehabilitating or reforming troubled youth.” Conversion therapy and rehab programs can fall under this category as well, although it’s most associated with teens who act out against their parents or in school. Custody of the minors is turned over by parents to the schools, often staffed by former “troubled teens,” in the hopes that their kids will get straightened out; but the now-adults say they were broken down.
Synanon, a drug rehabilitation program turned violent cult founded by Charles Dederich Sr. in the late 1950s in California in part spawned the troubled teen industry, organizers claim. One former cult member, Mel Wasserman, started the CEDU program that counted Hilton as a student. Attack therapy, where students are encouraged to tear each other down in a group setting, was a feature at CEDU, which was shuttered in 2005.
How much is the industry worth?
The private programs, partially funded with government cash, come out of the pockets of desperate parents. The schools are overwhelmingly based in Utah, with its vast wilderness landscapes fit for rugged outdoor experiences. According to a 2015 study out of the University of Utah, “The Family Choice Behavioral Healthcare Interventions Industry” raked in $328,702,999 in 2015, with most of the cash coming in from out of state.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that 12,000 kids have collectively been sent to Utah, home to about 100 programs, in the past five years, with each sojourn costing at least $30,000.
Although the alt-schools are meant to educate, survivors claim class was beside the point: “We were building other camps, basically doing manual labor all day long,” Hilton claims in the doc. “It was constant yelling at, boot camp-style.”
What exactly happened to Paris Hilton?
“My parents were scared and they didn’t want their reputations to be ruined,” says Hilton, who admitted to sneaking out to nightclubs since she was 15 years old, in the tell-all flick. “I was sent away to be hidden,” the celeb claims, charting her path through places she calls “emotional growth schools” located “in the middle of nowhere,” including Ascent, Cascade and CEDU.
At Provo, Paris claims staff “got off on torturing children and seeing them naked.”
The young rebel often ran away. “They shut down highways, they shut down airports,” says Paris’ sister, Nicky.
The last stop on the tough-love train for Paris was Provo Canyon School in Utah, where she stayed for 11 months in 1999 until her 18th birthday. She says in the movie, “[it was] the worst of the worst,” calling her time there — where she alleges she was abused, forced to take drugs, and stripped down and placed in solitary confinement — “something out of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ ” She blames that point in her life for later shacking up with less-than dudes, and for her obsession with becoming a self-made billionaire.
“It made me not trust anyone, not even my own family,” says Hilton, who said she has a recurring nightmare of when she was kidnapped and taken to Provo Canyon School in the middle of the night by two “transporters” as her parents looked on.
Hilton reveals that she suffers from “trust issues,” “fear” and “anxiety” as a result of her time there in the film, and has posted online a few times using the #BreakingCodeSilence hashtag.
Provo Canyon School said in a previous statement that the facility was sold in 2000 and is under new ownership. School officials said they could not comment on the past owners but do not “condone or promote any form of abuse.”
What is Code Silence?
At some of the schools and programs, “Code Silence” is a punishment where students are told to not speak in order to “socially isolate” students, according to the Breaking Code Silence website.
Breaking Code Silence is encouraging alumni of the troubled teen industry to share testimonials online. Social-media posts filed under the #BreakingCodeSilence hashtag chronicle the trauma and harsh discipline at some of the camps, including manipulation, restraint, drugging and food deprivation.
“There are other celebrities who went through PCS,” says Katherine McNamara, an organizer of the movement who was at Provo Canyon School with Hilton and appears alongside other classmates Jessica Pike, Elizabeth Martin and Riana Lincicum in “This is Paris.” “You’re the first one to bravely speak up.”