Aspen Ranch (1995-2011) Loa, UT
Residential Treatment Center
History and Background Information
Aspen Ranch was an Aspen Education Group behavior-modification program that opened in 1995. It was marketed as a Residential Treatment Center for teenagers (13-18) who struggle with a variety of emotional, behavioral, or academic challenges such as low self-esteem, academic underachievement, substance abuse, and family conflict. The program had a maximum enrollment of 80 teens, and the average length of stay was reported to be between 6 and 12 months. In 2005, the program’s tuition was reportedly arond $7,100 per month. Aspen Ranch was a NATSAP member from 1999 until its closure in 2011.
Aspen Ranch was located at 2000 W Dry Valley Rd, Loa, UT 84747. The campus included seven cottages: 3 for girls and 4 for boys. Each cottage had three bedrooms with bunk beds in them. It is reported that as many as 13 teens lived in each of the cabins at a time.
Founders and Notable Staff
Matt Alexander worked at Aspen Ranch beginning in 2000 as an English Teacher, Academic Director, and the Program Director. In 2004, he was promoted to Executive Director. His prior and current employment is presently unknown.
Melodie Rose worked as the Executive Director of Aspen Ranch beginning in 2006. Prior to this, she worked as the Program Director of the notorious and confirmedly abusive Turn-About Ranch, which is another Aspen Education Group program. Her current employment is unknown.
Brandon Burr worked as the Clinical Director of Aspen Ranch for five years. He previously worked for the Utah Department of Corrections where he designed and developed a residential substance abuse treatment program utilizing the Therapeutic Community Model at the Central Utah Correctional Facility. According to HEAL, “Working in correctional settings led to employment with the Utah Department of Corrections where he designed and developed a residential substance abuse treatment program utilizing the Therapeutic Community Model at the Central Utah Correctional Facility. The former director of the Utah Department of Corrections was responsible for the torture at Abu Ghraib. Therapeutic Community Model is a euphemism for cult-like behavior modification/brainwashing and known to be psychologically damaging.” After leaving Aspen Ranch, he and two colleagues created Equine Journeys Adolescent Residential Treatment Program.
Scott Andrew Peterson worked as an Equine Therapist at Aspen Ranch for an unspecified period of time. After leaving Aspen Ranch, he created a therapy clinic called Therapy on the Fly in 2009. In 2013, he was arrested after he confessed to an LDS bishop that he had sexually abused a 14-year-old female client of his while working at Therapy on the Fly. He was charged with three count of felony sexual abuse and one count of lewdness. Peterson was sentenced to one to 15 years in prison in March 2014.
Like other behavior-modification programs, Aspen Ranch used a level-system consisting of six levels. In order to advance through the levels, the residents had to complete packets and demonstrate certain behaviors. To get to the higher levels, the individuals had to show “leadership” and snitch on others in order to look good themselves. The levels are reported to have been:
- Orientation/Round-Up: When students arrived, they were placed on Round Up. They slept in the same room as the other residents, but they had to wear a plain white t-shirt and remained an arm’s-length from a staff member at all times. During this period of time the residents were either silent in a basement, or outside doing manual labor (changing watering pipes, building fences etc). They were forbidden from speaking to any other residents of the program. This phase typically lasted between 2 and 3 weeks.
- Mustang: While on this level, the residents were assigned a “team,” including a living facility. They had limited responsibilities or expectations. This phase lasted until student demonstrated sufficient progress to “rank up.”
- Maverick: No additional information
- Greenhorn: On this level, the residents gained some small benefits, such as a once-weekly soft drink, and ability to spend up to one hour per week in their room;. This level lasted until student demonstrated sufficient progress to rank up, including a demonstration of “accountability” to the satisfaction of staff.
- Rider: Typically, this level was the highest reasonably achievable rank. On this level, the residents gained additional privileges such as more “room time,” and a weekly “rider night,” wherein students of this rank would get to watch a PG-rated movie and enjoy a single junk food item of their (limited) choice. Most students did not advance past this rank.
- Wrangler: On this level, the residents were basically mini-staff. They were granted considerable freedom to move around campus, and additional privileges. This level was typically unachievable due to the tremendous and arbitrary requirements. Ranking up required participation in the Alcoholics Anonymous program, including for students who did not suffer any addiction or substance-abuse related issues.
During the first month, the teenager could only write letters and receive mail from parents, which was all read and censored by staff. After a month, the student had a phone call with the parents in the therapists office. The call was on speakerphone, so if the teen attempted to tell parents of the ranch’s abuse or try to ask to go home, the therapist would immediatly turn the phone call off.
Aspen Ranch utilized discipline as a large part of their program. If the residents were disobediant, they would be punished in a variety of ways. Some of the punishments that were reportedly used by Aspen Ranch were:
- Service hours: examples of “service” include hauling hay, scooping horse manure out of barn and corrals, feeding pigs, filling in holes in the road)
- When a student forgets something, they must do an “image breaker” which consists of making yourself look like a fool for at least 30 seconds (for example: acting like you are pregnant, acting like a dog, pretending to be blind, role-playing a gay policeman, etc.)
- Positive Control System (PCS): when a kid refuses to move, he can get PCS-ed, which consists of staff bending the teen’s wrist behind their back and using other painful pressure points.
- Papers: staff may make the kid write a paper on why something is wrong and present it to the team.
Abuse Allegations and Lawsuits
Many survivors have reported that Aspen Ranch was an abusive program. Allegations of abuse and neglect that have been reported by survivors include overmedication, violent and excessive physical restraints, emotional/psychological abuse, physical abuse, solitary confinement/isolation tactics, and intense forced manual labor. Many survivors report that they developed PTSD as a result of their time at Aspen Ranch.
In 2013, a former Equine Therapist at Aspen Ranch, Scott Peterson, was arrested after he confessed to an LDS bishop that he had sexually abused a 14-year-old female client of his while working at his therapy clinic, Therapy on the Fly. He was charged with three count of felony sexual abuse and one count of lewdness. Peterson was sentenced to one to 15 years in prison in March 2014. It is unknown whether or not he sexually abused any of his clients while at Aspen Ranch.
In March of 2010, Aspen Education Group announced that the Aspen Ranch, along with four other Aspen programs, would be closing at the end of the current school year. According to then-President of Aspen Education Group, Phil Herschmann, “It’s purely the economics of the times that has really created a really reduced demand for these services.” In addition to Aspen Ranch, New Leaf Academy and the NorthStar Center in Oregon, the Bromley Brook School in Vermont, and SunHawk Academy in Utah were also closed around the same time.
Aspen Ranch officially closed in 2011, and its program was “integrated” into Outback Therapeutic Expeditions.
September 2021: (SURVIVOR) “During my stay, my leg was broken during a mandatory football game; I still have a titanium rod in my leg. I was driven by ambulance roughly four hours away, to Provo, before I could receive adequate treatment. I recall one incident while I was on crutches, wherein the team was walking to school during the winter. The able-bodied student and staff all went ahead; I was left alone, unmonitored, walking on a slope of packed ice, on crutches. I was fortunately able to maintain my footing, but may well have died if I had slipped; it was a long way down, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to lift myself back up from such a fall. For a couple of weeks after my leg got broken, I’d be picked up after school by a Ranch vehicle to take me back to the dorm; it wasn’t a terribly long trip (perhaps a quarter mile), but carrying a 30+ pound backpack, on crutches, isn’t fun. One day, I waited for this vehicle for an hour or so… but it turned out that they weren’t doing that anymore, and decided not to tell me as much. So I ended up limping my way back. Generally, the rules seemed to change on a whim, without any form of notification.” – Anonymous, submitted directly to Wiki
11/6/2020: (SURVIVOR) “I was misdiagnosed as depressed, bi-bolar, and schizophrenic at the age of 16 at Aspen Ranch. I was put on countless medications which are harmful for a teenager to take including anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, sleep medication, and mood stabilizers. These effected me for years and i believe have had long term effects on me as well, even 20 years later. I was never properly evaluated, they just kept giving me medications. Aspen ranch was a school for criminals and drug addicts and I learned a wealth of information to get myself into even more trouble once I was released than i had ever been before I was sent there. I saw girls with eating disorders and learned how to binge and purge. I was surrounded by sexual abuse victims and heard their screams of trauma and PTSD in the middle of the night. I witnessed girls and boys trying to escape only to be caught and given a longer sentence to serve. I witnessed several teens try to commit suicide and then be punished by being forced to sit in a “reflection circle” in the field outside for hours at a time. I was once punished in this reflection circle for having tampons in my room. And another time for having cookies that my mother sent me for Christmas. It was a brutal place and I know I didn’t have as bad an experience as most did here, but it did effect me for life and possibly give me PTSD. I’m lucky that my father yanked me out of that place after about 6 months, because I know many others that spent a lot more time there and were not nearly as lucky as I was.” – Ashley (Survivors Breaking Silence)
6/16/2006: (SURVIVOR) ” I am a survivor of the aspen ranch school, located in Loa, UT. A Theraputic Boarding school/ rehabilitation cente…..my ass. Aspen Ranch uses a physical restraint system called PCS (positive control system) which is actually FAR from positive. PCS includes a barrage or various pressure points and bent wrists, locked joints, and strained tendons. Once put into PCS submission you are held here by a minimum of 3 staff, you’re pulse regularly checked to indicate your level of anger.You are normally on the ground (also known as “Carpet Time” for a norm of 45 miutes to an hour). They use any method of getting you down, whether it be calmly asking you to cooperate with them or tackling you through a crowd of people onto concrete (which seems to be a staff favorite). I have seen many of my friends at Aspen Ranch end up with broken wrists from PCS. I have myself lost the feeling in the tips of my fingers for days as a result of being held in PCS submisson for over 3 hours. Once you are PCSed (on top of everything) you have to goto R&R (redirection and recovery) more commonly known as the room where you where red sweat pants and sweatshirts even in the dead of the summer (in the Desert) to no avail. The “on campus” psychiatrist’s perscribe you medications based on staff behavioral reports, without even consulting you to see how you feel about putting a new foreign substance into your body or checking past medical records (could be detramental to your well being). For example I myself was a bit ADHD according to staff, and the staff aparently thought that they were doing me a favor recommending that i be prescribed to ritalin (methylphindate), which actually led to a number of seizures…to bad they didnt bother to check to see if my family had a history of amphetamine related seizures.” – Anonymous (HEAL)
9/23/2005: (SURVIVOR) “I wish I knew where to begin. I know that there are many more programs that are probably more abusive than what I experienced here but that doesnt take away from the facts. I will try to focus on the most disturbing experiences i can remember but, like many other survivors of such programs i find myself having a hard time remembering everything that went on. For the first two weeks you arrive at Aspen Ranch you are placed on a level known as round-up. During this period of time you are either silent in a basement, or outside doing manual labor (changing watering pipes, building fences etc). You can not have any contact with your parents and get to talk to a therapist maybe once or twice. One July morning when I refused to go outside, the sheets were ripped out from under me and I was carried and thrown onto a staircase where two men put my shoes on picked me up and dragged me to the feild where I was to work. Afraid of any other forms of punishment, I did. Being physically threatened is a major way they get you to follow the rules. Every week you got to speak with your parents, on speakerphone, with your therapist present for 20 minutes. If you ever tried to tell your parents about the torture you were suffering through the conversation would be immeadiatly terminated. All letters were read before sent, all incoming mail opened read and inspected before given to you. The only contact allowed was to your parents and had to be positive. On top of whatever work project your team was assinged to each day you also had to particapate in an hour long physical, no matter how physically drained you were. People would sometimes pass out or break down begging to stop but, for the most part the physical went on for as long as the supervisor saw fit. The psychological abuse was never ending, if you were suspected of doing something wrong you would be forced to go into the basement and sit at a desk until you admitted what you were accused of. We were often threated to be sent to an out of country program where we were told there was no child labor laws, I still don’t know if this program exists but, the mere threat was enough to keep most of us “in line”. I could go on forever with stories of this sort. My main point though, please do not put your child through this, two years later I am still suffering from the lies I was fed.” – Anonymous (HEAL)
HEAL Program Information
Aspen Ranch – Secret Prisons for Teen (archived, 2020)
Aspen Ranch – BCS Database
Aspen Ranch Visit Report – StrugglingTeens
Therapist arrested, accused of sexually abusing teen client (FOX13, 10/31/2013)
Therapist accused of sexually abusing patient sentenced (FOX13, 3/10/2014)
Utah therapist sent to prison for having sex with teen client (Salt Lake Tribune, 3/10/2014)
Therapist, 36, jailed for 15 years for sexually abusing his 14-year-old Mormon patient (Daily Mail, 3/10/2014)