Jamaica pulls U.S. boys from troubled teen school after allegations they were abused

Seven American boys are being held in the custody of Jamaican child welfare authorities, more than six weeks after they were pulled from a school for troubled teens because of abuse allegations.

The boys were attending Atlantis Leadership Academy in Treasure Beach, along the island’s south coast, which advertises itself as a faith-based school serving teenagers who are struggling with substance abuse, anxiety disorders and defiant behavior. 

Then, according to an email the Jamaican Child Protection and Family Services Agency sent parents last month, the agency received information that children at the program “were being mistreated, amounting to abuse,” and as a result had removed them. The agency planned to work with state child protection services to return the boys to the U.S., according to the email, which a parent shared with NBC News.

The children are being held in Jamaican group homes, according to attorneys working on their behalf.

The Child Protection and Family Services Agency in Jamaica did not elaborate on the type of alleged abuse and said it cannot comment due to the ongoing investigation. It’s unclear how the allegations came to light.

Atlantis Leadership Academy did not respond to requests for comment. In a letter to parents, Randall Cook, the program’s director, said: “With our reputation and transparency, no one could believe something like this could have occurred, nor that we are in any way an abusive organization.”

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Tarah Fleischman, 59, whose special needs son, Cody, is among the boys pulled from the academy, said she’s frustrated by the long wait to bring her son home to Wisconsin and upset by the mistreatment she alleges her son faced there. 

Tarah Fleischman and her son, Cody.
Fleischman met with her son, Cody, after a March court hearing in Jamaica.Courtesy Tarah Fleischman

Cody, 16, who is diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and ADHD, arrived at Atlantis last May and has lost a significant amount of weight since then, she said. Fleischman was not allowed to speak to Cody while he was at Atlantis, but she was able to see him for about an hour last week, and he told her that he had been beaten at the school, according to Fleischman and an advocate who was present. 

She regrets sending Cody to the school, which she said quickly agreed to enroll him last spring after several other programs rejected him. She had hoped placing Cody at Atlantis would help him learn to control his aggressive outbursts, and keep both her son and her family safe.

“I’m just so frustrated with the system,” she said. “Unfortunately, I was a desperate mother who got preyed upon.”

The situation has alarmed youth rights advocates who have previously raised concerns that many facilities that are part of the so-called troubled teen industry in the U.S. operate with limited oversight. That has allowed abuse to go unchecked for years in some schools before authorities intervene. State and local agencies have even less oversight when children are sent abroad. 

“This is as hidden as it gets,” said Chelsea Maldonado, a consultant with 11:11 Media Impact, the charitable arm of Paris Hilton’s media company, who has been arranging legal assistance for the children and met with Fleischman and Cody last week.

Problems at programs for troubled youth

Atlantis Leadership Academy is a small, private facility for boys that lists no accreditation on its website. Cook, an American who previously worked as a consultant for troubled teen programs domestically, established the school in 2016, according to its Yelp page, and registered it as a business in Idaho. The program charged parents as much as $9,800 a month in tuition, records show, and said it would take in boys that others had rejected.

The Child Protection and Family Services Agency removed the boys on Feb. 8. A week later, a judge in Jamaica denied the program’s request to return the boys and has ordered the school to turn over the students’ belongings, according to an email to parents from the U.S. Embassy. 

In a Feb. 27 letter to parents, Cook said that he was “working our back channels” and collecting signatures from locals to show that “we are a good program and need to remain in the community as is.”

The State Department declined to comment. The U.S. Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica, also declined to comment on the case, but said it works with local authorities to ensure that the child welfare facilities where American children are held “remain as safe and comfortable as possible.”

At the most recent court hearing, on March 15, the abuse allegations were not discussed, according to Fleischman and two attorneys who attended. The seven boys were present but were not called upon to speak, and the judge ordered another hearing to take place in April. 

Fleischman said she learned that her son and others had been taken from the facility when one of the boys called her on Feb. 14. In a recording of the call, which she shared with NBC News, one of the boys told her Cody was frequently beaten by the staff at Atlantis Leadership Academy and sometimes went days without food.

“It just feels so surreal,” she said. “I still can’t believe that this happened.”

Tarah Fleischman's son, Cody, in photos taken in May, August and December 2023.
Tarah Fleischman’s son, Cody, in May, August and December 2023. She says her son has lost a significant amount of weight.Courtesy Tarah Fleischman

She had already been growing concerned about Cody. Her only contact with him was the photos that Atlantis staff sent her, which showed Cody outside during field trips and picking up trash on the beach. She was alarmed by how pale and thin he appeared. 

Fleischman called the U.S. Embassy, which she said told her its role would largely be as an observer as the Jamaican legal process played out and provided her with a list of Jamaican attorneys. 

Boys at the Atlantis Leadership Academy in Treasure Beach pick up trash.
Boys at the Atlantis Leadership Academy in Treasure Beach pick up trash.Courtesy Tarah Fleischman

She then sought help on forums for people who had been placed at abusive youth facilities. She got in touch with Maldonado, who became an advocate after her experience at Tranquility Bay, a troubled teen program in Jamaica that shut down in 2009 following abuse allegations. Maldonado connected Fleischman with attorneys who have handled child abuse cases and flew to Jamaica to assist. 

“These children were sent to a foreign country where they weren’t allowed to call or talk to anyone,” Maldonado said. “And somehow, because of one parent reaching out to the survivor community, we were able to discover it and find out what’s been going on down here and actually advocate for these children.”

Fleischman said she was the only parent present at the March 15 hearing. When she met with Cody afterward, he asked why she sent him there.

“I just kept saying I’m sorry,” she said. “And then one time he says, ‘I know, Mom, I know.’  So that’s hard to live with — that guilt.”

It’s unclear when Cody may return to Wisconsin. Fleischman said the first time she spoke with her local social services agency was last week, after she called several times to ask about next steps.

The Marathon County Department of Social Services, in Wausau, Wisconsin, told both Fleischman and NBC News it has not heard from Jamaican authorities regarding Atlantis Leadership Academy. The department declined to comment further, citing privacy restrictions.

The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families said it is “not aware” of contact from Jamaican authorities.

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