What is Provo Canyon School? Paris Hilton recalls being 'tortured' at treatment center for teenagers in Utah
Ahead of the release of her documentary 'This Is Paris', Paris spoke about how she endured continuous physical and mental abuse in a boarding school in Utah
We often feel that the lives of celebrities and stars are a cakewalk with no setbacks, but socialite Paris Hilton has proved us wrong. In an exclusive interview with People, the 39-year-old socialite opened up about the horrific abuse she endured at a boarding school in Utah. The astonishing revelation comes ahead of the release of her documentary ‘This Is Paris’, premiering September 14 on Hilton’s YouTube channel. Talking about the mental, emotional and physical pain she felt while at Provo Canyon School in the late '90s, Paris said she had kept the agony a secret for decades but is proud of what she has become now. "I buried my truth for so long. But I’m proud of the strong woman I’ve become. People might assume everything in my life came easy to me, but I want to show the world who I truly am."
When 'The Simple Life' star was a teenager, she was living in New York City’s famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel with her parents Rick and Kathy Hilton along with siblings Nicky, 36, Barron, 3, and Conrad, 26. She said she used to enjoy a lot of freedom as a teenager. But since her parents were strict, they put her up in a series of boarding schools that were apparently focussed on behavioral development. Of them, the last was Provo Canyon School where Hilton stayed for 11 months where she faced a lot of abuse. "I knew it was going to be worse than anywhere else," she said as quoted in People. "It was supposed to be a school, but (classes) were not the focus at all," she added. "From the moment I woke up until I went to bed, it was all day screaming in my face, yelling at me, continuous torture."
Elaborating on the torture at school she said, "I think it was their goal to break us down. And they were physically abusive, hitting and strangling us. They wanted to instill fear in the kids so we’d be too scared to disobey them." Three of Hilton's classmates who have appeared in the documentary made similar allegations against Provo Canyon School. They alleged that they were often force-fed medication and held down by restraints as punishment. Paris mentioned that she was put in solitary confinement after the school learned that she was trying to escape. The fear in her continued making her feel like a prisoner. "I was having panic attacks and crying every single day. I was just so miserable. I felt like a prisoner and I hated life."
She also mentioned that attempts to tell her parents failed partly due to the school’s interference. "I didn’t really get to speak to my family. When I tried to tell them once, I got in so much trouble I was scared to say it again. They would grab the phone or rip up letters I wrote telling me, 'No one is going to believe you.' And the staff would tell the parents that the kids were lying. So my parents had no idea what was going on."
Finally, it was in 1999 that she left the school and returned to New York but was terrified to speak up against abuse as she was "ashamed" of opening up about it. It is after 20 years that Hilton has had the chance to open up about the school trauma by filming a documentary based on her life, hoping to move on. "It feels like my nightmare is over," she said. "And I’m going to watch the movie with my parents — I think it will be good for us, but emotional too. There are no more secrets."
Hilton has mentioned that right now she has no plans to pursue legal justice and would rather devote time to spread awareness regarding such behavioral schools that promote physical and verbal abuse. "I want these places to shut down. I want them to be held accountable. And I want to be a voice for children and now adults everywhere who have had similar experiences. I want it to stop for good and I will do whatever I can to make it happen," she was quoted as saying in People. When People reached the school for comments on the allegations, it responded by saying: "Originally opened in 1971, Provo Canyon School was sold by its previous ownership in August 2000. We therefore cannot comment on the operations or patient experience prior to this time."
What is Provo Canyon School?
Opened in 1971, Provo Canyon School (PCS) is a residential treatment center for teenagers with two campuses in Utah. The boys' campus is in Provo and the girls’ campus in Springville, where an early adolescent program is attached. Its website mentions that both Provo Canyon School campuses are licensed by the State of Utah, Department of Human Services, accredited by the Northwest Accreditation Commission and is fully accredited by The Joint Commission. Its website mentions it as an "intensive, psychiatric youth residential treatment center in Utah" because of the availability of its professional clinical staff, medical staff and with focus on evidence-based, clinical "best practices". The school has gender and age-specific programs for children and adolescent students, evidence-based substance abuse programs, recreational therapy and group activities. It also undertakes thorough psychiatric assessment, treatment and stabilization and educational assessment as mentioned on its website.
But the school was enmeshed in controversies on its conduct in 1980s and '90s. Former students filed cases against private schools for youths including Provo for its use of "behavioral-modification programs" which violates Section 1983 and the Rehabilitation Act. The United States District Court for District of Utah, Bruce S Jerkins, J, entered judgment and appeal was taken.
Utah's residential schools mired in controversies
There have been many controversies on behavioral treatment and residential schools in Utah in the past. An Al Jazeera report mentions that a similar school called Diamond Ranch Academy, which is reportedly a private youth residential treatment center in southern Utah, had a troubled teenage program called observation and assessment. Based on some first-person narratives, the report mentions that the program was filled with some “mindless tasks” and even physical abuse if anyone disobeyed the rules or showed signs of transgression. However, Diamond Ranch Academy’s lawyers denied abuse at the facility and pointed out that the school along with many others in Utah are regulated and inspected regularly.
Al Jazeera mentions that after several reports shed light on troubled teens in such schools in Utah, a bill was passed in 2005 that makes facilities avail licenses from the state for operations. To avail a license, a facility must be inspected at least once a year to make sure it is abiding by state rules. For example, the children ought to see a therapist once a week, restrain and solitary confinement may not be used (as was also highlighted by Hilton) and mails are to be sent and received freely keeping up with safety measures. Despite the legislation, there have been a dozen deaths in Utah's residential schools alone where the plea to stop the abuse of children in treatment centers has gained momentum.