Crosshairs

Redditors launch project to track troubled-teen camps

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On Reddit, online activism is increasingly yielding real-world results -- and gay teens may be the latest to benefit.

Last month, a lesbian teenager, Xandir O’Cando, posted to the site’s Troubled Teens section. She’d been abducted four years ago and forced to take part in a so-called troubled teen camp, she said, where she was subject to severe psychological abuse.

The post quickly went viral, receiving over 100,000 views on Reddit after getting picked up by sites like Boing Boing and Something Awful.  It also helped launch a nascent online movement.

The Reddit community recently joined forces with Kelly Matthews, part of a team producing a documentary on Straight, Inc, one of the first of these networks of camps which closed down in 1993. Together, the two groups are running the website Troubled Teen Industry, which they hope will become a kind-of muckraking website chronicling the industry.

“I decided to team up with Reddit because they have done such a great job at exposing the industry,” Matthews said.

O’Cando said she was abducted early in the morning on May 10, 2007.

The strangers took her to Cross Creek, a camp in Utah that’s part of a network called the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools. The camps promise to rehabilitate troubled youth through tough-love, but critics allege the programs are at best brainwashing and at worst institutionalized childabuse.

On its website, Cross Creek promises to help “teens who are determined to do their ‘own thing’ regardless of whom it hurts or how it may alter their future.”

But O’Cando said she was forced to attend the camp because of her sexual orientation.

“To this day, the only thing I can think of that I possibly could have left out was my attraction to other females,” she wrote. “In one of the Parent-Child seminars we were made to attend, my mother shared with me that this was one of the biggest ‘issues’ that caused her to send me to Cross Creek.”

O’Cando said she began believing the camp’s indoctrination, especially that homosexuality was a choice: “From the moment I arrived at Cross Creek,” she wrote, “I was treated as though I was broken, dirty, and inhuman.”

This isn’t the first time Reddit and its often passionate userbase turned their scrutiny to the industry. Earlier this year, a campaign on the site helped shut down the Elan School in Maine, after a redditor posted an IAmA question-and-answer session on the site, alleging extensive abusive practices at the school.

Seeing the success of the online campaign against the Elan School, redditor pixel8 started the Troubled Teens forum, known on the site as r/troubleteens, hoping to apply similar scrutiny to camps across the country.

The troubled-teen industry has been around since the 1970s, and has faced media and governmental scrutiny for years. But that scrutiny has been sporadic, at best, and both pixel8 and Matthews said the industry now is as strong as ever. And that’s why they believe their presence on Reddit -- and Xandir’s story -- is so important.

“Xandir's story definitely gave us 'street cred' on the Internet,” pixel8 said. “The various groups we had been working with started paying more attention to us and feeding us the info we need. Activists who never heard of Reddit became aware of its potential.”

Photo: rutlo