‘The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping’ Recap: Do Schools Under WWASP Still Exist?

Netflix worldwide has been delivering some excellent documentaries on real-life stories. Most of them pertain to all sorts of horrors and awful experiences people go through, and they try to get at the reasons behind such happenings. A documentary maker goes to the core of an incident to see what led to such horrific happening and if it could be curbed. There was Wild Wild Country, which was about the cult established by Acharya Rajneesh in America and what led to his downfall. Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, and How to Become a Cult Leader are some other prominent documentaries that describe the horrific events that took place behind the walls of dubious institutions. The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping was directed by Katherine Kubler, who was one of the survivors of a certain behavioral program that was targeted at reforming troubled youth, but which turned out to be a nightmare for many.


What was Ivy Ridge School?

The director of the documentary series was a victim of the so-called reform schools that introduced behavioral programs for teenagers. These programs promised to treat the kids right and turn them into well-adjusted people to mingle with others who were considered normal. Katherine, along with several classmates of hers—Alexa, Diana, and Allison—was a part of the Ivy Ridge school that promised their parents they offered a long program that would change the way the troubled children behaved. Ivy Ridge was a boarding facility that was well marketed, but the women and men who attended it had only horror stories to share.

Katherine, along with these girls, were taken out of their regular schools by their parents because of certain mischiefs. There were young boys and girls who were in their early teens who were subjected to physical and emotional abuse by the staff of the Ivy Ridge school, and there was no end to the amount of pain and trauma these younglings went through. The saddest part was that the parents sent their children willingly to these institutions, hoping these schools would be of some benefit and would return their kids as model citizens. Katherine and other survivors discussed in detail the restrictions and the mind-numbing seminars they had to endure. The boys and the girls were forced to live in two different sections. The restrictions were borderline violations of human rights, but there was nothing these children could do to stop this madness. 


Why couldn’t the children contact their parents?

Every letter, movement, and phone call was tracked by the staff of the institution. As they walked through the corridors of the school, Katherine and the rest of the survivors relived plenty of unpleasant memories. There were instances of girls being subjected to molestation by the female wardens, and this was difficult for young girls to speak about. Several survivors spoke about having to lie to a large audience about being drug addicts and making their parents believe the same. Ivy Ridge shamed boys and girls relentlessly. They were emotionally abused and told they were wrong and committed too many mistakes. The constant bombardment of this kind changed the personalities of the young teens forever. The men, as young boys, had it worse because they were expected to be tough after being subjected to brutal physical abuse, and there was CCTV footage of the same. Several boys rebelled against the system and caused a riot. Sadly, that did not bring any systematic changes to the rules or regulations. The police never bothered to investigate the school but chose to send the boys to the juvenile instead. 

Who ran the Ivy Ridge School?

The first episode was all about the Ivy Ridge school and understanding the people who ran the institution. Their research into the Ivy Ridge school revealed that the senior management of the school was neither qualified nor had any experience in running a school. The rules and regulations were very vague. The marketing only projected a good image, especially to their target audience, the parents. The women and the men had breakdowns while speaking about the emotional and physical trauma caused by this institution. Most of them stayed at the school for 15 to 20 months, though some of their stays extended to several years. The girls and the boys were not allowed to mingle with each other; the girls couldn’t form friendships with or look at each other, and there was never any education provided to them. These children turned out to be socially stunted after the completion of the program. These programs also created a rift between the students and their parents, as they were brainwashed into believing their parents never wanted them. The staff at the school were cruel, and the feeling of endless torture lingered for a long time.


How were the parents of the children convinced?

The second episode was dedicated to understanding how the parents were convinced to make their children a part of something that could be branded a cult. The parents were presented with attractive marketing materials, followed by several kinds of meetings conducted for the parents to paint a beautiful picture of the institution they had sent their kids to. These parents were made aware of the abuse years later, when the children turned adults. The online support groups helped them create a safe space to talk about their horrible experiences. Katherine had chosen not to stay in touch with her father as punishment for him keeping her in an institution that ruined her life. She revealed her communication with her father resumed only years later, and they slowly began to discuss this chapter. Many parents came forward to speak about the mistake they made, which changed the way their children perceive the world. 

Katherine was hellbent on finding out how so many parents were lured into this institution, and her research introduced her to an educational organization named WWASPS, which is an acronym for the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools. This organization had several schools of the same nature, such as Ivy Ridge, under their umbrella and were inflicting the same amount of trauma to young kids. Katherine was quick to conclude this was a widespread phenomenon, and no one from law enforcement in America thought of investigating them or arresting the people running the organization. The parents were swept off their feet through rigorous seminars, which included extracurricular activities which encouraged them to admit their children to these respective schools. The documentary places a lot of stress on how the human body responds to trauma and how it stays in the physiological and mental systems for a long time. 


PTSD became a part of their personality, which was the reason why Katherine wanted to investigate the role of the staff in treating the students the way they did. The in-depth documentary offers the answers all the women and men were seeking, and they follow every possible avenue to receive closure. Katherine, along with the other female survivors, confronted many people who were part of the Ivy Ridge, and many ex-employees defended themselves and said they were just doing their job, instead of questioning the establishment. The parents who appeared on the show profusely apologized to the children for putting them through an experience tantamount to serving time in prison. Many boys who faced prison time because of their roles in the riots claimed their jail time was far more comfortable than the time they spent at the reform school. 

Do schools under WWASP still exist?

The last episode of the documentary series was dedicated to Katherine and the survivors investigating exactly how many institutions exist in the United States under the parent organization, WWASP, and if they were able to establish organizations in other countries as well. Her research got her in touch with authors, lawyers, and journalists who had made it their lifelong goal to bring down these organizations that made the lives of many children miserable. There was a congressman from Utah as well who highlighted the malpractices of these organizations that were targeting only troubled children and their vulnerable parents. 

The documentary discusses how the money invested by the parents for the wellbeing of their children was never utilized for the young men and women in the school. They could barely pay anything to the employees they hired. The money went straight to the founder and owner of WWASP, Robert Lichfield, and his family, who were deeply involved in building schools in different names across the USA and other countries, namely Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Czech Republic. Ivy Ridge closed down its operations in 2009, but that did not stop the Lichfield family from opening more schools around the country, which indicated they had some deep pockets thanks to the exorbitant fees they charged the desperate parents. 

Several schools of WWASP were closed abroad, but Robert’s brother, Narvin Lichfield, managed to bring up new schools within a short period of time. Katherine also focused on understanding Robert Lichfield through WWASP, which created an empire that was difficult to penetrate by the police and other investigating agencies. The speakers spoke about the network they had established amongst many politicians from the Republican Party, which made it difficult for many to investigate WWASPS’ wrongdoings. 


Katherine also discussed with many survivors that the WWASP targets towns that have low employment rates. On establishing their organization and hiring locals, it becomes difficult for the town and the local administration to speak up against an entity that was responsible for the upliftment of the economy. The documentary ended with the message that WWASP still exists, and nobody from the federal investigation agencies has investigated the crimes the schools under them have committed by traumatizing a generation. These children were handed diplomas that never helped them while applying to colleges. Katherine ends her years of work on the documentary on this subject with the hope these establishments are to be punished someday and the survivor’s receive justice.

Smriti Kannan
Smriti Kannan
Smriti Kannan is a cinema enthusiast, and a part time film blogger. An ex public relations executive, films has been a major part of her life since the day she watched The Godfather – Part 1. If you ask her, cinema is reality. Cinema is an escape route. Cinema is time traveling. Cinema is entertainment. Smriti enjoys reading about cinema, she loves to know about cinema and finding out trivia of films and television shows, and from time to time indulges in fan theories.

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