Adirondack Leadership Expeditions is a local program for teenagers deemed to have behavior issues. It's about character building, something most people would agree is a good thing.
To correct a common misconception, these teens are not criminals, nor are they referred to ALE by the courts. Other local programs fill that role: Mountain Lake Academy in Lake Placid does so in a boarding school setting, and a now-shuttered state program in Schuyler Falls used to in an outdoor setting. Also in Lake Placid, the Adirondack Experience offers one- and two-week outdoor programs for youth referred by county social services.
At ALE, however, parents or guardians pay substantial fees to enroll their children in a program that sets the teens in the woods of Onchiota, camping without the distractions they are used to. The teens are forced to recognize the difference between wants and needs: Their basic needs are met, but perks - better food, for example - must be earned by demonstrating responsible behavior. They also go on extended backcountry trips, through which the teens come to appreciate teamwork as well as personal responsibility.
The Saranac Lake-based organization is now in a bit of hot water after a teen who escaped from the Onchiota property stole a car and was arrested driving it south, toward home, on Interstate 87. That prompted a bunch of town of Franklin residents to complain about ALE at a town board meeting on Aug. 8, citing prior problems with escapees and challenging the program's level of responsibility.
ALE has been shy about publicly responding to this controversy. A statement by Executive Director Tracy Edwards left questions unanswered, and she declined phone interviews with the Enterprise. She did, however, agree to an email interview last week; here are her responses to the Enterprise's questions:
ADE: What can you say to town of Franklin residents who claim ALE is not exercising enough oversight of the young men and women at its facility in Onchiota? At a recent town board meeting, described (in an Aug. 9 Enterprise article), about 11 people spoke out, saying ALE youths have gotten away "again and again and again."
TRACY EDWARDS: Adirondack Leadership Expeditions meets or exceeds all applicable standards of student oversight. Our students, ages 13-17, are inherently good kids who may just have gotten off the right track in life - they are not adjudicated youth, and we are not a boot camp or lock-down facility. Our program specializes in helping teens who are exhibiting self-defeating behavioral issues; we do not accept students who are a danger to themselves or others. We promote personal growth through a focus on insight-oriented experiences, and our beautiful natural environment has proven highly effective for helping at-risk young people by removing distractions they may be experiencing in their home environments and simplifying options to help them gain insight into their core values and accept responsibility for their choices.
All of our students are highly supervised and, in the evenings, we conduct bed checks every three to four hours. If a student exhibits a risk of running away, we will place them on a safety watch with two staff sleeping beside them. Still, we take the feedback from our valued neighbors seriously and have undertaken a thorough review of our procedures with an eye to enhancing them where possible.
ADE: According to the article, town Supervisor Art Willman "said he's been in contact with the state police investigator who has been working the case, Tim Woodruff. Woodruff told him he's looking into the number of runaways who have been reported to state police by the camp, and he wants to compare that to the number that haven't been reported." Can you share those numbers - at least the number of runaways that have been reported to authorities in the last year - or better yet, five years, since one year's count may not be representative?
TE: Because we take the feedback of our neighbors seriously and consider safety our highest priority, we will work closely with town officials to get at a solution to the issue at hand. At this point, we don't believe that getting into the numbers is as important as coming up with these solutions. Our policy is to contact police when a student has been missing for 45 minutes, as we sometimes experience kids walking off but coming right back once they think things through. We are in the process of reviewing our procedures with the goal of implementing any appropriate changes to minimize runaways and address the concerns expressed by our neighbors.
ADE: (Quoting the article) "Willman said he also plans to invite ALE leaders to the next town board meeting." Has ALE been invited? Does someone from ALE plan to attend?
TE: ALE has not been invited, so instead I have invited Mr. Willman to meet with me in person next week. I am confident that open communication and collaboration will help us resolve these issues.
ADE: What's your response to this? "Town Clerk Sandy Oliver said the last time problems with the ALE came up, in 2006, ALE workers talked with the town and set up a phone tree to notify residents about runaways, but three months later, all of the staff in the phone tree were transferred out of the state."
TE: I am looking into this situation and why this system stopped. I think it could be a great strategy going forward and plan to discuss it with Mr. Willman when we meet, to likely reinstate it.
ADE: Finally, what's your response to Mildred Vorrath's comment, "People are beginning to load their guns"?
TE: I can understand the community's concerns, and we will do all that we can to minimize the likelihood of students running from our program and disrupting our neighbors. We take the safety of our students and neighbors seriously, but I think this comment goes too far. Violence or threats of violence are never a good answer, and we can only hope this statement is an exaggeration.
And now for the Enterprise's brief comments on this matter:
-Having good working relationships with neighbors in Onchiota is necessary for ALE, and to repair these, the group would do well to be more open in its communications: Go to the town board meeting, be more accessible for interviews, etc. In runaway situations, it needs to work in partnership with these neighbors, not have them distrust it. The burden of solving this problem lies mostly with ALE, since instances like the recent town board meeting damage the group's reputation.
-Ms. Vorrath's statement that "People are beginning to load their guns" is worrisome. Theft is wrong, of course, and people should protect themselves from it by locking doors and the like. But it would be awful for someone to kill a young person, even to stop him or her from stealing your car.
-ALE serves an important purpose in society, and the Adirondacks are a good place for it to do that work. We hope people here don't want it chased away. Think: What if these were our children? We are appreciative that someone in our area is doing such important work, and we hope local people will help ALE in any way they can - even if that means constructive suggestions for how it can deal better with runaway situations.