This shocking docuseries about an abusive school is #1 on Netflix

Documentary series that leave viewers feeling rattled and disturbed are having a moment on Netflix. Of the top-performing TV series on the streamer at the moment, for example, two fall into this category — one of them, American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders, we wrote about in a separate post earlier this week, while the second has just been released. It’s The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping, a three-part investigation into an academy that claimed to use recreational actives and therapy to help troubled teens.

In reality, it operated more like a cult and left teens who’d gone through its program reeling from physical and mental abuse.

“What do you do if your child gets caught in a cycle of self-destructive or even dangerous behavior?” a TV host asks during a news program that’s shown in the series. “Some desperate parents are having their children abducted, taken against their will, to a behavior modification program.”

That program was hosted at a school with an innocuous-sounding name, The Academy at Ivy Ridge, in the small town of Ogdensburg, New York. To get there, students like Katherine Kubler — the filmmaker behind The Program — were put in handcuffs and driven there against their will, making the process feel akin to a kidnapping. The idea was that, basically, students would lose their freedoms as soon as they stepped through the door; no talking, no going outside, no communicating with the outside world.

A complicated system of merits ensured the students couldn’t leave until they turned 18. Kubler, who witnessed rampant abuse and corporal punishment, lasted 15 months before her father came and pulled her out of the school. Meanwhile, the trauma from that experience endures.

“When I was in college, freshly out of the (Ivy Ridge) program, I remember my college roommate being like, ‘Katherine, you don’t need to explain the program to everyone you meet,’” Kubler says in a Netflix promotional interview. “They really drill into you this complete sense of shame, and that you’re this horrible person for being there, so I felt like I had this disclaimer I needed to say to people.”

The Program on Netflix
Katherine Kubler in “The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping.” Image source: Netflix

A breakthrough that helped her to bring the documentary to fruition is the fact that, despite the academy closing in 2009 and laying dormant thereafter, all of the student files were actually still there and still intact. Including her own. Moreover, Kubler found no shortage of survivors willing to come forward and share their own stories for the docuseries.

Furthermore, she wanted to make her docuseries not only to bring to light what happened at The Academy at Ivy Ridge, but to also call attention to similar practices that are continuing to happen today at similar institutions. “There are glimmers of hope, but these places are like whack-a-mole,” she says. “You get one shut down and it’ll open again under a new name, sometimes in the same building with the same staff.”

A proposed Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act is in the works, legislation that would, among other things, establish minimum standards for children in residential treatment. But representatives need to hear from their constituents, Kubler stresses, in order to get that bill over the finish line.

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