Élan School

Élan School was a private, coeducational, and controversial residential behavior modification program and therapeutic boarding school in Poland, Androscoggin County, Maine. It was a full member of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP). The facility was closed down on April 1, 2011 due to reports of abuse, many from former students, dating back to its opening in 1970.[1]

Élan School
Elan logo.png

United States
Coordinates44°00′29″N 70°23′10″W / 44.008°N 70.386°W / 44.008; -70.386Coordinates: 44°00′29″N 70°23′10″W / 44.008°N 70.386°W / 44.008; -70.386
TypePrivate therapeutic boarding school
Age range13–18+
Websiteelanschool.com at the Wayback Machine (archive index)

Élan was located on a 33-acre (13 ha) campus[2] that was formerly a hunting lodge.[3] There were also other campuses, such as the one on 424 Maplecrest Road in Parsonsfield, Maine, which was formerly a hotel and hospital before it was bought by Élan in 1975. This campus was known to have some of the worst abuse in the school's history, and has been said to have been put out of use sometime in the 1980s.[4]

The school acquired some notoriety during the 1990s and early 2000s when former classmates of Michael Skakel, who had attended Élan in the 1970s, testified against him in his trial for an unsolved murder that had occurred about two years before he enrolled at Élan.[5] The school was also the subject of persistent allegations of abuse in their behavioral modification program.[6][7]


Élan School was founded in 1970 by psychiatrist Gerald Davidson, investor David Goldberg, and Joseph Ricci, a former heroin addict who had worked with young people in drug-treatment facilities[8] (and who in 1979 would become owner of the Scarborough Downs racetrack).[9] Ricci headed the school until his death in 2001, when his widow Sharon Terry took over.[10][7] Maine politician Bill Diamond served as its Director of Governmental Relations.[11]


The school specialized in treating teenagers with behavioral problems. In the program, described as "controversial",[7] 'humiliation' was stated clearly as a therapeutic tool, as is following up on such intervention with encouragement and warm support. Students attended year-round.[12] In 2002, a New Jersey educational consultant who had referred students to Élan for 22 years told The New York Times that he would refer only "the most serious cases" to the school, which he said would "take kids who haven't responded to other programs and who are really out of control."[7]

The school's treatment methods were based on the "TC" or therapeutic community modality popularized in the 1960s at facilities such as Synanon, and later at Daytop Village.[13]

In 2002, a New Jersey educational consultant told The New York Times that the school was "certainly not for the faint-hearted." He said "There's lots of confrontation," but added "and yet there are lots of hugs."[7] Accounts of former students include mentions of physical and mental abuse, including degrading tasks such as "[sessions] of cleaning urinals with a toothbrush that can last for hours" and up to the point of critical malnourishment.[7]


Throughout its history, the school was faced with numerous allegations of student maltreatment. In 2001, Details magazine cited Élan as "among the most controversial of the nation's residential therapeutic communities."[14]

In 1975, Illinois state officials removed 11 children from the Élan program, alleging mistreatment.[2]

In 2002 during the trial of Michael Skakel, an Élan alumnus, witnesses testified that beatings and public humiliation were parts of life at Élan during the late 1970s.[2] In trial testimony, former students also described the practice of placing a student in a "boxing ring" surrounded by classmates who confronted the student.[15][16] The New York Times has reported that, at the school, "smiling without permission can lead to a session of cleaning urinals with a toothbrush that can last for hours."[7]

The New York State Education Department, which has paid tuition for special education students to attend Élan School, gave the school a favorable review in 2005.[17] In 2007, however, New York education officials raised questions about the school's practices, alleging in a letter to the school and Maine education officials that Élan students were physically restraining their peers and being deprived of sleep. The allegations prompted the state of New York to threaten to withdraw tuition money for taxpayer-funded students. The school's lawyer contested the allegations.[2]

In March 2016, Maine State Police announced they had opened a cold case investigation into the death of former Élan resident Phil Williams, who died on December 27, 1982, after participating in Élan's "ring," where students were forced to fight each other as a means of behavior modification. The State Police later announced no charges would be filed as a result of their investigation, citing insufficient evidence.[18][19][20]


On March 23, 2011, Élan School announced it would be closing on April 1, 2011. The school's owner, Sharon Terry, blamed "declining enrollment and resulting financial difficulties," as well as negative attacks on the school via the Internet. In a letter to the Lewiston Sun-Journal, Terry said: "The school has been the target of harsh and false attacks spread over the Internet with the avowed purpose of forcing the school to close." She added that "the school has, unfortunately, been unable to survive the damage."[1]

The website domain name that used to belong to Elan School is now currently owned by an unrelated facility in Shanghai, China.


Élan was featured in Children of Darkness, a critically acclaimed documentary filmed in 1983 that explored the grueling realities of emotionally troubled youth and the various residences and institutions that housed them.

A documentary chronicling the school's history and impact titled The Last Stop was released in 2017. The film was directed by an Élan graduate and included interviews from various residents and professionals including Maia Szalavitz.[21][22]

Notable alumniEdit

  • Tiffany Sedaris, artist, and sister of Amy Sedaris and David Sedaris. Tiffany's two years at Élan is cited in her sibling's writings and interviews as deeply traumatic to her, and a direct cause of her inability to form normal relationships with her family members. After decades of struggling with mental illness, Tiffany ultimately committed suicide in May 2013.[23][24]
  • Michael Skakel, convicted in the murder of Martha Moxley. The case drew media attention largely because Skakel is related to the Kennedy family.[5]
  • Ben Weasel, of the punk rock band Screeching Weasel.[13]
  • Phil Williams Jr. died at age 15, after being forced to participate in the school's notorious boxing-ring punishment.[25]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Elan School closing after Web campaign to shut it down". Sunjournal.com. 23 March 2011. Retrieved 26 August 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d Wack, Kevin (2007-03-25). "New York seeks change at Elan School". Portland Press Herald. Archived from the original on 2021-11-17.
  3. ^ "Elan Alumni". Elanalum.org. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  4. ^ "Elan Parsonsfield". local history matters.blogspot.com. March 2020. Retrieved 6 September 2021.
  5. ^ a b Kennedy, Robert F. Jr. (1 January 2003). "A Miscarriage of Justice". The Atlantic. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  6. ^ "Good News: Bad Economy Killing Abusive Teen Programs". HuffPost. 30 January 2009. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g St. John, Warren (2 June 2002). "Skeletons in the Classroom". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  8. ^ Dwight F. Blint (February 15, 2000). "JOSEPH RICCI'S CAREER AND CONTROVERSY". Hartford Courant. Retrieved January 31, 2021.
  9. ^ Karen Vachon. "About Scarborough Downs". Scarborough Downs official website. Retrieved January 31, 2021.
  10. ^ "The #1 Source for Domain Names". Archived from the original on 2018-02-10.
  11. ^ Skelton, Kathryn; Tice, Lindsay (13 March 2016). "His family asks: What really happened to Phil at the Elan School?". Sun Journal. Archived from the original on 12 April 2019. Retrieved 6 April 2021.
  12. ^ Kastuck, Edwin (2002-09-02). "Basic School Approval Report Pertaining to the Elan School". MuckRock. Maine Department of Education. Retrieved 2021-11-17.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  13. ^ a b DeRogatis, Jim (2001). "Screeching Halt". SPIN Magazine. SPIN Media LLC. 17 (3): 124.
  14. ^ "Bad Company: The Elan School." Details Magazine, [1] Archived 2010-12-07 at the Wayback Machine, November 2001.
  15. ^ "Classmate: Skakel unsure of role". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. 2002-05-07.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  16. ^ "Archived copy". marthamoxley.com. Archived from the original on 14 September 2000. Retrieved 17 January 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  17. ^ Special Education Quality Assurance Nondistrict Program Review: Final Report, Élan School, New York State Education Department / The University of the State of New York, November 2, 2005; archived on Élan School website, accessed February 21, 2010
  18. ^ "Archived copy". www.sunjournal.com. Archived from the original on 4 October 2017. Retrieved 17 January 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  19. ^ "Police looking into 33-year-old death at Elan School". Seattle Times. 2016-03-15.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  20. ^ Skelton, Kathryn (21 October 2016). "State police: Elan student's death investigation continues". Sunjournal.com. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  21. ^ "Archived copy". www.sunjournal.com. Archived from the original on 30 April 2017. Retrieved 17 January 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  22. ^ "The Last Stop (2017)". IMDb.com. 29 April 2017.
  23. ^ Bailey, Blake. "David Sedaris Talks About Surviving the Suicide of a Sibling." Vice, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/7bdvdg/remarkable-messes-0000671-v22n6. Accessed September 24, 2020.
  24. ^ Sedaris, David (21 October 2013). "Now We Are Five". The New Yorker. No. October 28, 2013. Condé Nast. Retrieved 5 January 2022. Tiffany [...] was subsequently sent to a disciplinary institution in Maine called Élan. According to what she told us later, it was a horrible place. She returned home in 1980, having spent two years there
  25. ^ Skelton, Kathryn and Tice, Lindsay. "His family asks: What really happened to Phil at the Elan School?", Sun Journal, March 13, 2016.

External linksEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Maura Curley (1991), Duck in a Raincoat, Menuki Press. ISBN 0-9629522-0-6. An unauthorized biography of the founder of the Élan School, Joe Ricci.
  • Eva Pappas (2006), The Other Son – One Family's Personal War on Drugs, Lagrimas & Clean Slate Publishers Group, ISBN 978-0-9777187-1-9. Describes Élan's program under a fictitious name.
  • Maia Szalavitz (2006), Help at Any Cost, Riverhead. ISBN 1-59448-910-6. A former senior fellow of the Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University offers a thoroughly researched critique of the troubled-teen industry, which includes an ethical guide for parents with troubled teenagers.