Paris Hilton still fighting against boarding schools
Reported by USA Today
In her September documentary, Paris Hilton made explosive accusations against a boarding school she attended as a teenager, claiming she was verbally, emotionally and physically abused and left with insomnia, anxiety and trust issues.
She isn’t alone in those claims. Adults and teens across the country are coming out with abuse allegations against the “troubled teen industry,” as it’s called – schools and organizations marketed as boarding schools that experts say lack safety and health regulation and the proper educational and mental health tools to help students and keep them safe.
Hilton, 39, is one of thousands of former students who have alleged physical, psychological and sexual abuse. She began the fight with the documentary “This is Paris.”
Now, the real work begins.
“There’s a lot more work to do,” Hilton tells USA TODAY. “I’m not going to stop until it’s done.”
Hilton and her team, which includes “This is Paris” producer Rebecca Mellinger and Breaking Code Silence co-founder Jen Robison, launched a website Thursday that they say is the most extensive database of survivor stories from the troubled teen industry: a platform that allows those who have experienced abuse to submit their own testimonies in a consolidated space.
“We hope this gives them a platform where their voices can really be heard,” Mellinger says. “This community has been so passionately activated since Paris came out, and I think they needed this public awareness aspect to be able to feel that their own stories are truthful… They really do deserve to be heard, so we’re hoping to give them another platform.”
Hilton said she experienced verbal, emotional and physical abuse during the 11 months she attended Provo Canyon School, a Utah boarding school for troubled teens. The trauma, Hilton said, left her with anxiety, trust issues and insomnia. When the documentary aired Sept. 14, Provo Canyon distanced itself from these claims with a statement noting the school came under new management in 2000, after Hilton attended in the mid- to late-90’s.
Hilton says she isn’t surprised by Provo Canyon’s repeated denials, but ruminates on how that in turn has hurt survivors more.
“They’re just very sadistic people,” she says. “They lie to the families and they lie to the children. They’re manipulators, so obviously they’re going to lie to try to protect themselves from what they’ve done. … But it’s not our shame, it’s their shame.”
Hilton, Mellinger and Robison (a fellow alum of Provo Canyon who has said she also experienced physical and emotional abuse while there in 2003, after the school came under new management) have been busy since “This is Paris” debuted.
In October, they organized a silent protest in Provo, bringing together more than 100 former students and supporters to show solidarity for those who had experienced abuse at Provo Canyon or schools like it. Though it was haunting for Hilton to return to the grounds of the school, she said she felt empowered by the opportunity to show students past and present that their voices mattered.
“An incredible thing happened when we went to Provo… I have had numerous staff members – former staff members and current staff members – coming forward to me to talk to me about allegations of abuse, as well as handing over evidence,” Robison says.
When reached for comment, a representative for Provo Canyon School directed USA TODAY to an October statement on its website, which says the school provides “a structured environment” for young people who “have not been successful in typical home and school environments, and in many cases have a history of engaging in dangerous behaviors.
“While we acknowledge there are individuals over the many years who believe they were not helped by the program, we are heartened by the many stories former residents share about how their stay was a pivot point in improving – and in many cases, saving – their lives,” the statement added.
Students who attend programs including Provo Canyon School hail from all parts of the country, which makes things more complicated than simply passing one law in Utah, for example, because home states don’t have the power to protect their students while attending school across state lines.
If change won’t come from within the programs or their individual states, Hilton and her team are going to take things to the top. In addition to attending a social justice program in Washington, D.C., and creating the website, they’re working to promote a number of bills on the state and federal levels. Hilton even came out with a song in October, “I Blame You,” the proceeds of which benefit Breaking Code Silence. Eventually, Hilton says, her team wants to work with the Biden administration.
This new database takes Breaking Code Silence – currently a volunteer organization taking steps to become a nonprofit – to the next level. What was already a conglomerate of thousands speaking out online will be able to consolidate their voices on one coherent platform, testifying together to show “the extent to how prevalent the abuse in this industry is,” as Mellinger says.
The world has known of Hilton since she was a teenager, but Hilton says she didn’t really know who she was until “This is Paris.” A few years back, she opened up in the documentary “American Meme” about feeling like she had been “a 21-year-old for the past two decades” — “just very lost and kind of stuck in that mind frame and not in a good relationship,” she now reflects. In 2018, when “Meme” debuted, she was engaged to actor and model Chris Zylka, before the two broke things off later that year.
Now, Hilton feels like a new person, both because of her relationship with boyfriend Carter Reum (the two just celebrated their one-year anniversary and Hilton gushed about having found her “partner for life”), and because she feels like joining the Breaking Code Silence fight has given her a life meaning and a mission.
“I feel like a grown-up finally, and I’m so excited for the next phase of my life: to have a family and just grow up,” she says. “My priorities have completely changed. I no longer care about going out or being the party girl that I was before. I’m more excited about being an activist and really using my voice and my platform to help make change and make a difference in the world.”
“Doing the documentary was therapy,” Hilton adds, crediting director Alexandra Dean for building a kind and trust-worthy atmosphere to let Hilton process her trauma out loud. “Talking about it for the first time was like therapy.”
Following the documentary’s release, Hilton said she has heard from families who pulled their children out of Provo Canyon after watching her traumas unfold in “This is Paris.”
“It’s one of the best feelings in the world,” Hilton says of knowing that her speaking out has made that direct impact. “I just think back to when I was a little girl and just how painful and terrifying it was to be there, and I know that me back then would be so proud of the woman I am today to actually have stood up for myself and for everyone and really just using my platform to do good… My heart breaks for anyone in there, but I’m so happy that using my voice has saved some children from having to go through any more torture.”
In “This is Paris,” Hilton opened up about worrying that the lasting trauma from her time at Provo Canyon would leave her with nightmares forever.
“I don’t know if my nightmares will ever go away, but I do know there’s probably hundreds of thousands of kids going through the same thing right now,” Hilton said in one scene. “And maybe if I can help stop their nightmares, it will help me stop mine.”
The nightmares are gone now, she says.
Posted: December 13th, 2020