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Of Young Men And Reform School

In this age of firearm proliferation, how do we stop tragedy and who decides if a troubled teen can be healed?

Corrections officials chat behind the fence at Pine Hills. All photos courtesy Montana State Fund
Corrections officials chat behind the fence at Pine Hills. All photos courtesy Montana State Fund
The turmoil in our society over school shootings and the access that troubled youth have to automatic weapons are now part of our national riddle. I’ve been reflecting on what could cause a young man to do physical harm to other people. I can tell you that it didn’t start recently but fairly long ago when my journey in psychotherapy involved a stop at a state facility for juvenile delinquents.
 
I was bartending then and my wife, Susan, was waiting tables at the Hole-in-the-Wall restaurant in Miles City, Montana. The year was 1979. We had stopped in town to visit my sister who lived there, to do our laundry and sleep in a bed after road tripping in our Datsun B-210 for months around the Pacific Northwest in search of a new place to call home.

I had spent my adolescent summers working for custom haying teams, ranches, and combining crews in and around Miles City so it was familiar territory to me, although a bit like Mars to my third generation Southern California sweetie. We had met while I was teaching psychology at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California.
 
My sister, Beth Winter—Doc Winter’s wife—was persuasive enough for us to consider living for a spell in Miles City—home of the famous springtime bucking bronc sale— where my Dad happened to be. My Mom died there while in residence at the Custer County Rest Home, suffering what was then becoming known as Alzheimer's Disease.
 
Susan managed to get us a home loan through the local bank even though neither of us had full time jobs. The two-story house on Knight Street was a block away from the Milwaukee Line rail yard and was on the market for $24,000. We secured the financing in the Old West way, on the word of a respected citizen and a firm handshake.
 
One night, Susan served a wild looking man at the Hole-in-the-Wall who had recently moved to Miles City from Berkeley, California to be the psychologist at Pine Hills School for Boys—otherwise known as Montana’s lockdown institution for delinquent adolescent males. It had been through an arduous federal class-action lawsuit questioning the use of the antipsychotic drug, Thorazine and archaic nose-to-the-wall punishment as a treatment modality.
This character, Dr. Albert Bellante, became a dear friend of ours and when his wife Gena moved to town with their newborn born son, an extended family connection developed leading to my being hired by Pine Hills School as the education center counselor.
 
Albert asked me to assist him with the challenging task of assessing incoming teenagers to determine what level of treatment and containment would be advisable. Mind you, there were boys coming to Pine Hills School for a forty-five day visit to see if they needed to stay there or would be better served by returning to their community. We saw a flow of kids who ranged from incorrigible/ungovernable to those who could kill a loved one and not blink an eye.
 
Everyone says following a mass shooting involving a young person or some other tragic event that it could have been prevented if only there had been intervention.
 
My first understanding of what possible intervention options are came after immersion in the Pine Hills environment. It involved the realization that not all people have a hidden goodness within them that can simply be nurtured out. 

Call it sociopath, psychopath, personality disorder or just good old fashioned evil. It’s there folks, and constitutes up to one percent of a given society, equaled on the other side of the spectrum by those sterling angel/humans who represent the one-percent of near holiness. The rest of us knock around in between these polarities.
 
At Pine Hills, we were tasked with assessing up to six kids a week. The flow kept coming. Boys were picked up and dropped off by Sterling Silver, who would drive all across Montana, hauling boys in the state’s sedan fixed with a mesh grill between him and his charges.
 
We are talking about a vast territory inhabited by hard working folk who typically handle their own kin through the old fashioned methods of hard work, severe consequences, stern discipline, and a firm belief in the Almighty. Many of these boys grew up in families with guns.
 
Whatever parenting playbook you use, a parent or adolescent’s behavior can go tragically wrong. The hotspots for trouble back then were Butte and Billings, with rural reservation areas not far behind. 
 
The new committals arrived first at the intake facility called Russell Lodge. The trick was how to assess, with limited resources and time, the crux of the troubled youth’s issues.
The modern Pine Hills Youth Corrections Facility in Miles City, Montana
The modern Pine Hills Youth Corrections Facility in Miles City, Montana
Was there an inherent pathology? Was there a family system toxicity that drove the kids to troubled behavior? Was getting drunk, stealing a car and going on a joy ride really a felony or did the young man suffer from a deviant pattern?

Sometimes, the issues went far beyond impetuous behavior involving sub-adult men. For example, was the 17-year-old manslaughter charge assessed against a teen for running over another gay teenager on a bicycle a onetime anger-driven tragedy or was he a repeat offender, capable of committing murder, with even more serious issues?  Today, such an offense might be categorized as a hate crime.
 
Here’s another: is the loquacious extrovert who meant no harm in starting the house fire really as innocent as he portends or is there a sinister maliciousness lurking behind his beguiling grin?
 
One after another the moral dilemmas came through Dr. Bellante’s office on the second floor of the red brick Administration building, where he and I would interview each newcomer for an hour or so, asking questions to reveal their character.
"Was the 17-year-old manslaughter charge assessed against a teen for running over another gay teenager on a bicycle a onetime anger-driven tragedy or was he a repeat offender, capable of committing murder, with even more serious issues?"
This is where it got interesting. Superintendent Al Davis trusted us to assess the needs of these kids in an efficient and timely fashion, rendering a document that was not smashed up with psychological jargon, indecipherable test results, or conclusions formed by a particular bias. We were screening them based on individual contact and trying to get a read on their character, not immediately tagging them with a pathology.
 
Dr. Bellante’s genius was to devise an assessment document that was accurate, descriptive, and hands on for the treatment of complex presenting problems. Over the years we worked together we refined our approach, yielding a user friendly guide for treatment.
 
Here are its basic components: What’s the background context, i.e. the impressionable elements of his home life? What are the essential personal and family dynamics in play?  And what are the interventions that address each of the identified dynamics, spelled out in clear, simple language? Finally, at the end of this two page document, what is the prognosis and task at hand to treat the above?
 
This clear and specific assessment tool would then be given to the counselor assigned to the “delinquent’s” care and made available to the educational staff, teachers, counsellors and principal. The kid in question would be guided in his treatment and education program by the needs, talents, inferior traits, and challenges addressed in the assessment tool.

We knew that unless we caught the imagination of the bad boy leaders of the school we would not have credibility with engaging and treating the larger population.  There was a group of kids identified as the leaders and toughest kids of the 125 PHS census housed in their own lodge. It was clear to me that I needed to get their attention before the rest of the kids paid any heed to our approach. If the leaders were not interested then there would be no following by the general population. Like in schools, institutions have a deliberate pecking order that is well know by students even though often invisible to staff.

I elected to take this core group of the worst of the bad boys on an outing to the 
scenic and rough terrain of the actual Pine Hills, south of town, where our family has an earth structure cabin. I loaded them up in a state station wagon and headed toward the hills. Once there I unloaded the band, pointed toward a painted butte several miles away across ravines, badlands geography, and treacherous rattlesnake infested slopes, and said I would meet them there.

I bet on the principles of trust and risk taking.  It paid off, since eventually they all showed up on top of the rocky, uneven summit of the identified butte. We had been reading the collection of Northern Cheyenne teaching stories, Seven Arrows, as a method for engaging their warrior imagination. We were working the Jumping Mouse story. It was this moment that laid down the basis of our time together. Let me tell you a story about two of these young men whose names and circumstances are altered to protect their identity.
"Huey was a 17-year-old angelic looking kid with curly blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. He was a Butte kid sentenced to PHS for armed robbery. His affect was brash, extroverted, and cunning.
Huey was a 17-year-old angelic-looking kid with curly blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. He was a Butte kid sentenced to PHS for armed robbery. His affect was brash, extroverted, and cunning. After our outdoor bonding experience I was lulled into believing Huey’s word as worth something. In retrospect Huey would be diagnosed as Bipolar I with explosive anger episodes. 

After such an episode, where he knocked a fellow student unconscious, I encountered him in a narrow hallway where I confronted him about his assault. He blazed me with his eyes, cocked his arm back and slammed his fist into the wall two inches from my head, breaking his hand in multiple places, collapsing into a sobbing fit asking for my forgiveness. 

Once released from PHS as an adult, kids can only be kept as juveniles until their 18th birthday unless there are extenuating circumstances. Huey was last heard of years later, exploding in the back seat of a police cruiser so violently that he destroyed the cage, seat and doors. Huey was a goner, probably still institutionalized.

Adolescence, seen as a stage of development, is the part of life where two forces collide or, if lucky, merge. The family of origin experience is no longer strong enough to keep the interest of the emerging individual. And secondly, unless there is an interesting enough alternative, kids will act out their quest for identity rather than craft it with the help of mentors.

Freddie was a runner.  A native kid, he would often run from campus during the darkest hours of night, somehow escape his lodge security system and head out to steal a car, go on a joy ride and with any luck get laid. Sleek and handsome, Freddie cut an iconic native warrior look with long, jet black hair and bottomless shadowy eyes. 

Calls would go out to the on-call weekend staff, we would marshall the forces and speed around Miles City trying to catch Freddie on his joy ride. Eventually we would, he’d go through the consequence protocol, solitary confinement, loss of privileges, put on restriction for months and then he would run again. Freddie is still running.

How do we reach disturbed kids? There are three components: personable, charismatic, engaged teachers and administrators with whom kids can identify, a simple and clear assessment tool for those students who are floundering, and an affective education component to the high school curriculum.
"How do we reach disturbed kids? There are three components: personable, charismatic, engaged teachers and administrators with whom kids can identify, a simple and clear assessment tool for those students who are floundering..."
Each incident would create a teaching opportunity for the staff. How counsellors, teachers, and staff either followed or ignored this assessment is its own story. Imagine an underfunded state facility staffed by local “lifers” who were paid a pittance to face day-in-and-day-out the most challenging teens of Montana, working off a document created by a psychologist from Berkeley and a psychotherapist from Los Angeles.

We devised a two-pronged approach to meet the needs of kids.  First, we gradually and consistently moved away from a punitive model towards a therapeutic one. The assessment document served as a map, not unlike the Individualized Education Program used in public schools today.

Second, as a compliment to the core academic curriculum, an affective education component was included. This class presented aspects of what it means to live in the world focusing on value clarification, telling of one's own story, creative media expression, human sexuality, and other tools for living in today’s uncertain dynamic world. This class was part of the graduation requirements. It’s where kids could thrive and shine.

Should you be interested in studying this approach, Dr.Bellante and I co-wrote an article in the journal Education, vol. 102 entitled: The Poetics and Program of the Personal Discovery Process.
 
Today, we often read that kids are falling through the cracks. How the assessment and educational model developed at Pine Hills might be adapted to the complexity of both school shootings and aberrant behavior of potential mass shooting individuals is, for me, the question.
 
The answer, or at least an approach forward, might involve identifying high risk kids within school systems as well as providing a “Personal Discovery” module into high school curricula. If we go one step further, this assessment tool might be what people are calling for as “increased background checks” for assault rifle permits.
 
My mentor Dr.James Hillman, in his 1996 New York Times Bestselling book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling states in the chapter titled “The Bad Seed:”
 
“The demonic does not engage; rather, it smothers with details and jargon any possibility of depth...for we might one day vote into power a hero who wins a giant TV trivia contest and educate our children to believe the Information Superhighway is the road to knowledge. If one clue to psychopathology is a trivial mind expressing itself in high-sounding phrases, then an education emphasizing facts rather than thinking, and patriotic, politically or religiously correct “values” rather than critical judgment may produce a nation of achieving high school graduates who are also psychopaths.”
 
When we moved to Bozeman in the early 1980s, I continued to apply this model of assessment for the Gallatin County Probation Office. And, as the founding Headmaster for Headwaters Academy, used the affective education model as an integral part of its original approach. My work with the probation department and a chance meeting and friendship with a criminal defense attorney brought these assessment tools to another situation that became infamous, the father and son Mountain Men also known as murders and kidnappers Don and Dan Nichols.
 
But that is a story for another time.
A large crowd gathered in the recent Bozeman version of March For Our Lives, which Tate says was a positive social response to prevent gun violence. He praises the young people who organized the event and who are leading the discussion nationwide.
A large crowd gathered in the recent Bozeman version of March For Our Lives, which Tate says was a positive social response to prevent gun violence. He praises the young people who organized the event and who are leading the discussion nationwide.
As I think about the problem of troubled teens, guns, and background checks, this is what I know. Our youth are smarter than we think. They know what is going on around them even though they might be lost as to what is going on within them. They have an instinct for power and for corruption. They have not yet begun to parrot the party line. As adults we need to listen more and spout less. We need to catch their attention in relevant ways rather than tell them the way it is. And we need to model a balanced life posture that is unafraid to address trouble as it brews, not only after it erupts.

The youth of our country are asking and will demand a solution to mass shootings that rip life from their friends’ bodies. Let’s trust their instincts and provide them with the necessary adult tools to sharpen their naïveté, support their efforts, and pledge to get out the vote to elect responsive leaders that stand on the ground beyond the political divide.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A more recent view at Pine Hills
 
Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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