Netflix’s ‘The Program’ Reveals the Cult Tactics Used to Extract Money from the Parents of Troubled Teens

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Last weekend was my daughter’s 20th birthday so I spent some time hanging out with her as we went shopping for a new computer (her 6 year old laptop was on its last legs). She brought up a new show on Netflix that had really impressed her and encouraged me to watch it. It’s a true-crime limited series called The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping. There are just three episodes, about an hour long each.

I finished watching it last night and The Program really does tell a remarkable story about a girl named Katherine Kubler who at age 15 got in trouble for drinking a Mike’s Hard Lemonade at a private high school she was attending. Instead of a minor suspension, her father and stepmother decided she needed some tough love and in 2004 sent her to a boarding school in New York called Ivy Ridge Academy. At the time, it was marketed to parents as a place that could reform troubled teens while they finished high school and got a diploma.

What many parents who sent their kids to Ivy Ridge did, again this was marketed to them, was arrange for what was euphemistically called “transport.” That didn’t mean calling a taxi. Instead, to avoid having to argue with their children, parents would arrange to have a couple of large men show up, usually in the middle of the night, drag the child out of bed and deliver them to Ivy Ridge. This was legal since the parents had given consent but for the teens it often felt like they were being kidnapped.

Once at Ivy Ridge, they were strip-searched and quickly assigned a “family” of other kids, some as young as 13. There were a host of new rules which made the school something like a military prison. Rule #1 was that no one could go outside. The doors all had electronic locks and the windows had steel mesh on the outside. Rule #2 was no talking, at all to anyone except under very limited circumstances.

To make sure students followed all of the rules, there was a complex points system. Students started at level 1 and could only leave by completing the program at level 6. Each day without incident granted them 15 points to slowly climb up the levels. But any infraction, such as looking out a window or speaking to another person would earn a correction, basically negative points that meant you were essentially adding time to your sentence. And of course the school was charging parents outrageous sums to attend so it was actually in their interest to drag out the process as much as possible, In Katherine’s case, she wound up being their 15 months but other kids were there for more than three years.

Students had to write a letter home once a week and for the most part this was their only communication with the outside world. The letters were read before being sent and students could be docked points for “manipulation” if they begged their parents to let them come home. Similarly, once students earned enough points for a brief phone call, a staff member sat in the room listening to the call. If they complained about the program or begged to come home, the call was cut off and they would again lose points.

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