Utah doesn’t merely have a teen reform school problem. It has an underlying parenting problem that supports it, and is probably intractable.
Who has not watched the iconic pop culture movie “Footloose” (1984) and not realized what an apt picture of Utah parenting culture it represents? Set in the Wasatch Front, it is the story of teens oppressed by an excessively authoritarian culture, fighting for the need to develop, inquire and express themselves on their own terms. In the movie they succeed, which is where the story turns left.
In Utah 40 years later, the struggle still rages unresolved, with obvious markers: one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the nation; the lowest education investment in the nation; open subversion of laws intended to prevent brainwashing.
“Wild generalizations,” I can hear you saying right now. Generalizations, yes, but with a core of truth. Utah culture regards its teens as an indoctrinable sales-force-in-training for its ideology.
This happens everywhere in the world, of course, but when there is a higher concentration of these cultural attributes, it becomes a resource and a business model. When you need theories, staff and ephemeral oversight to abuse and punish teens into submission — not a problem.
Changing these embedded cultural characteristics is only possible on generational scales. The most effective way to protect teens in the short term is to starve the private reform schools that abuse them. Mental health communities need to spread the word far and wide that a teen sent to a Utah institution risks becoming an abused, damaged, lifelong enemy of adulthood.
Tom Horton, Park City