IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.
U.S. news

American boys say they were beaten and starved at Jamaican school for troubled teens

Former students of Atlantis Leadership Academy, along with parents and lawyers, describe rampant abuse. Five employees have been charged with child cruelty.
Photo collage of a sign at Atlantis Leadership Academy in Jamaica; the silhouette cutout of a boy on a photo of a tropical beach.
Atlantis Leadership Academy catered to American families seeking help addressing their teen boys' behavior.NBC News

Boys at an American-run school for troubled teens in Jamaica were beaten by adult staff members, forced to exercise until they vomited and placed in stress positions for hours at a time, according to former students, their parents and attorneys assisting them. 

The new details shared in interviews with NBC News offer insight into what likely prompted Jamaican child welfare officials to remove children from Atlantis Leadership Academy in February and place them in protective custody. Five employees of the school were charged this month with child cruelty and assault. 

“You got whipped, you got pipes beaten on you,” said James, 18, who was among the eight teens removed from the school, and who asked that his last name not be published to protect his identity as an alleged victim of child abuse. “But if I told someone, I was afraid of getting jumped by the other staff.”

Randall Cook, the school’s founder and executive director, defended his school but did not address specific questions about the allegations or arrests. He has previously denied the boys’ allegations.

James’ account bears strong similarities to those of five other boys who attended the school until February and were interviewed in Jamaica by a lawyer who described their accounts to NBC News. Three of those boys, along with James and an additional student, also outlined their experiences in detailed, handwritten statements that the boys said they wrote after their removal. 

In both their interviews and written statements, the boys describe rampant abuse, including being hit by employees, sometimes with objects like tin water bottles and broomsticks, and how a thwarted runaway attempt resulted in more assaults.

“I don’t know how I made it out alive,” one boy wrote. James described Atlantis Leadership Academy as a “living hell on paradise.”

An excerpt from handwritten statements by boys removed from Atlantis Leadership Academy.
An excerpt from handwritten statements by boys removed from Atlantis Leadership Academy.Obtained by NBC News

The boys said that contact with their parents was limited. James said he worried that telling his parents what was happening could delay his release.“There’s no place to go,” said Michael McFarland, an attorney representing the family of Cody Fleischman, 16, another boy who was removed. The school is along Jamaica's southern coast in Treasure Beach. “You’re in this remote part of this country where you don’t know anyone,” he said, “and you’re being monitored at all times.”

Cook, the school’s director, declined interview requests. He was not among those arrested and he has not been charged.

“We are proud to have always held up the dignity, safety, health (in all facets) and consistent positive personal growth to each young man that has enrolled in our Academy,” he said in an email.

Dirk Harrison, an attorney representing the school and the charged men, did not respond to requests for comment. Their next court hearing is scheduled for May 13, according to Radio Jamaica News.

A Jamaica Constabulary Force spokesperson confirmed that the staff arrests were due to the same abuse allegations that prompted child welfare officials to take the children into protective custody. Jamaica’s Child Protection and Family Services Agency declined to comment on the case, noting that it was still under investigation.

Five of the eight boys who were removed from Atlantis Leadership Academy by Jamaican authorities have since been returned to the United States.

Problems at programs for troubled youth

Atlantis Leadership Academy is a small for-profit school that Cook opened in 2016, after consulting for programs in the troubled teen industry, a constellation of boarding schools, wilderness camps, ranches and treatment centers for youth. Cook advertised his school to American parents as one that would help their children address emotional outbursts and rebellious behavior. Boys placed there worked through a level system to graduate that often took over a year. In interviews, James and another student, a 15-year-old boy whom NBC News is not identifying because of his age, separately described a punishment in which they were forced to sit up straight on a tall stool for hours at a time without bathroom breaks and were hit if they moved. They said each morning they were required to work out for up to two hours — running continuously, or doing hundreds of pushups — and school staff would hit them if they stopped. Staff would also cut the boys’ food portions as another form of punishment, they said.

“There were things that caused constant pain or suffering,” the 15-year-old said. “Like starving; When you’re hungry to the point that you’re in pain, or so thirsty that you’re about to pass out, that’s worse than a beating, in my opinion.”

At least four of the boys attempted to flee Atlantis Leadership Academy in December, James said, by organizing a run to the beach when one employee was distracted. The 15-year-old said in his handwritten statement that their plan was to get to the U.S. Embassy. But they did not make it far, James added, before staff caught them and beat them again. 

The two boys told NBC News that employees were especially hard on Cody Fleischman, whom they said was often denied food. Photos that his mother, Tarah Fleischman, received from the academy appear to show that Cody, who is diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and ADHD, lost a significant amount of weight while at the school.

Tarah Fleischman's son, Cody, in photos taken in May, August and December 2023.
Tarah Fleischman's son, Cody, in photos taken in May, August and December 2023. Courtesy Tarah Fleischman

Fleischman and James’ mother said they learned on Feb. 11 that their sons had been taken into protective custody when the U.S. Embassy called to inform them. Unsure of what to do, Fleischman sought help on a website for survivors of abusive treatment facilities. She connected with 11:11 Media Impact, the charity arm of Paris Hilton’s media company, which has pushed for better oversight of facilities like the ones Hilton was placed in as a teen. A consultant for the charity notified Dawn Post, a New York-based attorney who specializes in child welfare. Post flew to Jamaica to assist the boys, and Hilton held a news conference there about the case.

“There is nothing these boys could’ve done to deserve this torture,” Hilton told reporters.

Post, who volunteered to help the children get back to the United States, interviewed five of the boys in person about their experiences at the school. The boys’ descriptions of assaults, intense workouts and food restrictions, which she relayed to NBC News, closely mirror what James and the 15-year-old have alleged.

Post said that two boys described punishments in which they had water poured over their nose, making it difficult to breathe: One child said staff members tipped his head back and held a garden hose to his nose, forcing water up his nostrils. The 15-year-old who spoke to NBC News said he was held down on a ramp and had buckets of water dumped on his face. 

The boys pulled from Atlantis Leadership Academy this year aren’t the only ones who say they endured extreme punishments at the school. NBC News interviewed two mothers — one from California and another from Florida — whose boys attended the school in 2021. They said their sons told them that employees would force boys to stay alone in a small shed that staff and students referred to as “The Box” for days at a time, consuming only rice and water, and urinating in a bucket. Like the more recent students, the earlier students told their parents they were forced to exercise daily, often past the point of exhaustion.

Boys do pushups at Atlantis Leadership Academy. Faces have been obscured by NBC News.
Boys do pushups at Atlantis Leadership Academy. Faces have been obscured by NBC News.Obtained by NBC News

The mother from Florida said her son told her that one employee — who is among the five charged with child cruelty — choked the boys if they stepped out of line and that the children had to bathe with a hose spouting brackish water. The mothers spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their sons’ identities. Their families are both represented by McFarland.“We thought we were sending our son to paradise, on the beach every day, away from the problems of American culture,” the Florida mother said. “The place wasn’t on the beach. They did zero to help us. All they did was create more problems.”

In an email, Cook pushed back on the image of his school as abusive. He called the allegations part of a “pre-determined dismantling of legitimate Academies.” 

“The result of this activism and narrative is simple and approaching fast; families will soon be left with short term acute inpatient psychiatric services and/or Juvenile Hall,” he said. 

Atlantis Leadership Academy does not list any accreditation and is not registered with the Jamaica Ministry of Education and Youth. Cook said in an email earlier this month that Atlantis is a “service provider and an affiliate of Forest Trail Academy under whose auspices we operate here in Jamaica.” Forest Trail Academy, an online schooling platform, said it has some virtual students who attended the troubled teen school, but it is not affiliated with Atlantis Leadership Academy or Cook. 

Cook also runs a consulting agency, Core Solutions, that refers parents to residential programs where they can place their children. Cook and his wife, Lisa, were the main point of contact for parents with children at Atlantis Leadership Academy, and sent parents updates and photos via WhatsApp. But the parents said their sons told them the couple was rarely seen at the school. 

Cook said parents were aware that Lisa was their U.S. representative, and that she “has no role or interface with the day-to-day operations.” 

The California mother shared photos sent to her by Cook that showed the boys exercising outdoors and hauling sand, and her son cleaning an empty pool. She also provided an August 2021 letter from her son saying that the students were never allowed to leave campus, and did not do community work or go to church like the program had advertised.

A boy cleans a pool at the Atlantis Leadership Academy. His face has been obscured by NBC News.
A boy cleans a pool at the Atlantis Leadership Academy. His face has been obscured by NBC News.Obtained by NBC News

The photos also showed their son smiling at dinner, but McFarland, their lawyer, called such images “propaganda.”“They take photos of these feasts they would have once in a blue moon, but the kids were being starved,” McFarland said. “A lot of the parents had no idea because it was designed that way.”

The two families whose sons attended in 2021 said all of their phone calls with their children were monitored by school employees, who held the phone during the call. Fleischman said she had no phone calls with Cody while he was at Atlantis Leadership Academy over the past year. 

“The manner of our parental interactions and updates have never been an issue,” Cook said in a recent email. “Those who have passed through ALA continue to express appreciation for the services rendered to their families.”

For James, who is now home in Texas, the two months since he left Atlantis Leadership Academy have been a difficult adjustment. His family is trying to arrange therapy to help him address his time in Jamaica and sort out his next steps.

“I’m pushing past the pain,” he said. “I’m just glad to be back — glad to be out of there.”