When four former students from the same school died within months of one another in 2015, it seemed random, a morbid coincidence.
Then the number kept growing. At least seven more died the next year.
Their fellow alumni, feeling more anxious with each death, started to keep count.
By the time a classmate in Ohio died of a heroin overdose in October, the toll had reached at least 87.
Three weeks later, another fatal overdose in New Jersey: 88.
Three more weeks saw another, a schoolteacher in the Bronx found dead in the faculty restroom.
Ten days later, No. 90, in Minnesota.
“Damn,” a friend of the last victim wrote on Facebook.
“This is outta control.”
All of the dead were alumni of the Family Foundation School, a small boarding academy in rural Hancock, N.Y.
Since its opening in the 1980s, the school was an option of last resort for parents who sought help for their teenagers troubled by drug and alcohol abuse or behavioral issues.
The students ate and bunked together, were dressed down and punished together. Some attempted to escape together, dashing through the woods to the nearest town and hiding in a McDonald’s bathroom.
And now, alone and back at their respective homes, they were dying, largely of drug overdoses and suicide, their names joining classmates on the list.
The school closed in 2014 after a drop in enrollment that followed a self-described truth campaign by alumni telling of abuses there: solitary confinement, so-called “blackouts” of silence and isolation from others, the restraining of unruly students by wrapping them in rugs and duct tape.
There were reports of physical abuse in complaints to state officials and the police.
In 2015, a year after the school closed, at least four former students died.
The next year, there were at least seven.
In a recent Facebook post, a man remembered hanging out with two friends from the school in 2016, following the funeral of another.
Both those friends have since died.
Former students sought to find someone to blame, their first target being the school, only to come to terms with a more likely truth, that their dead classmates had been overcome by the sources of despair and addiction that took seed in their youth and brought them to the school in the first place.
It is unclear how many students attended the Family Foundation School over its roughly 30 years in business. A 1986 newspaper article about the school puts its student population at 34.
The next decade, a 1998 yearbook — roughly the halfway point in the school’s existence — refers to that year’s graduating class of 30 as its largest ever.
The school grew some in the years to come, alumni said.
Emmanuel Argiros, the son of the school’s founders and its former president, declined to comment on the school’s history. “I’m trying to move on,” he said.
He has had many conversations with angry former students, he said. “It’s painful to go through it over and over and over again.”
There is no clearinghouse for data regarding mortality rates among secondary schools. Robert M. Friedman, formerly with the Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic and Appropriate use of Residential Treatment, said he was familiar with the Family Foundation School and the push by alumni to close it down. He said the deaths of graduates are not typically tracked.
“Nobody knows how these kids have done, over all,” he said.
In recent months, many of the school’s former students have pivoted to a sort of social media suicide watch, urging alumni on Facebook to look out for one another.
The effort is led by Elizabeth Ianelli, 39, an alumna of the school and a former police instructor, who has tallied the death count — now up to 101, all under the age of 50 and the vast majority under 40.
Ms. Ianelli, whose username is Survivor993 for the number of days she spent at the school, created a Facebook community page called ISeeYouSurvivor, and separately posted a video that she made in her home office in Carmel, N.Y.
“What I want you to know is that I see you,” she said, visibly shaken as she spoke.
“I see you. I know what you go though and I’ve been there.”
She added later, “Our best revenge is living a good life.”
A sports camp now stands where the school once did, but many of the old buildings remain, like a red barn.
School of Last Resort
Parents who were struggling with troubled teenage children sent them to the Family Foundation School, near Binghamton, where they were promised their sons and daughters would receive a quality education as well as counseling and tough-love discipline.
A special-education teacher, Lillian Becker, heard about a job opening at the school in 1998 and went for an interview.
It was her first time on the campus, where she saw a schoolhouse, trailers and a red barn arranged on a hill that sloped gently down to a pond.
“It looked wonderful,” Ms. Becker said in a recent interview. “Very professional, very clean, very neat and orderly and everybody was very friendly. They had a student give me a tour. She just seemed so happy to be there.”
Ms. Becker got the job. On her first day, she saw something strange.
She was asked to monitor a timeout room for 20 minutes until a staff member arrived to take over.
“A storage room, probably like 6 feet wide by 12 feet long,” she recalled.
“On the floor was this student wrapped in a blanket with duct tape to hold the blanket shut. Just the head was sticking out.”
She was told the student was at risk of hurting others or himself.
She settled into her job as a de facto nurse, making outside medical and dental appointments for students and tending to their aches and pains.
She saw other practices that, looking back, she wonders why she didn’t openly question.
The school was arranged in “families,” with staff members designated as “Mom” and “Dad” and their “children,” the students, eating meals together before retiring to bunk beds in trailers, separate for boys and girls.
A regular occurrence during meals were “table topics,” when students would stand and accuse, or “bring up,” another classmate over some infraction, Ms. Becker and former students said.
“Susie would get up and say, ‘I want to bring up John,’” Ms. Becker said.
“John had to stand up.
Now it’s time to basically break this kid down. ‘I saw him flirting,’ something like that.”
What regularly followed was a tirade of mocking and scolding from other students and adults, she said.
“The staff would chop this kid up.”
Sanctions varied, some involving food — a diet of tuna fish on a dry English muffin was a common punishment — or menial labor, with students burying rocks in the dirt one day, only to be ordered to dig them up the next.
Others were social in nature, called “blackouts.
“If you were on house blackout, you were not allowed to talk to anyone outside of the family you were in,” said Emily Valentine, a student in 2001 and 2002.
The most extreme blackout was called exile, leaving the student to sit in a corner, alone, at meals.
“You weren’t allowed to talk to anyone or look anyone in the eye,” said Wesley Good, an alumnus from 2009. “You were a ghost.”
Some students reacted physically. “I flipped out and punched my counselor,” said Elizabeth Boysick, who entered the school in 2000.
Ms. Boysick said she was placed in a janitor’s closet for the infraction.
“Rugs in there, rugs on the wall. Nobody was to talk to you.”
Steve Sullivan attended the school from 1999 until 2002, and went on to serve time in prison years later for burglary and robbery.
He said he would fight others at every opportunity, beginning on his first day, when he lashed out at staff members who were trying to search him for contraband.
“I was thrown in an 8-by-8 isolation room,” he said. “Lunch and dinner were both tuna. I’d spend days in there on end.”
Once, he kicked the door off its hinges.
Former students could remember who watched them while they were bound or locked up: other students, effectively deputized by staff members to serve as jailers.
Some of those accounts are corroborated by the reports of state officials who, after receiving complaints, conducted surprise inspections over the years.
In 2010, inspectors noted “a previous culture of harsh treatment at the facility,” adding, in a letter to the school, “The Family Foundation School has been working to change this culture,” according to documents released by the state’s Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.
In a written response to the inspectors, Mr. Argiros, the president, denied that the school acknowledged its past as harsh, and said it has always been open to outside agencies and new protocols for “dealing with often incorrigible and oppositional adolescents who have failed to thrive before coming to our school.
Ms. Becker, the de facto nurse, enrolled her own son, Lee Grivas, at the school. He did well, earning good grades and going go on to study photography.
He eventually dated the actress Christina Applegate and moved to California.
In 2008, he died of a drug overdose.
A special-education teacher, Lillian Becker, served as a de facto nurse at the school.
On her first day, she was asked to monitor a timeout room, where she said she noticed a student wrapped in a blanket that was taped to hold the blanket shut.
The student’s head was sticking out.
Escape by Any Means
Students ran away from the school. Mr. Sullivan fled one day in the winter of 2002, unprepared for the eight-mile journey to Hancock, N.Y.
“I get to town, and I’m frozen,” he said. “I ended up sleeping in a doghouse. I woke up frozen stiff and I couldn’t move.” He walked to a police station. “I tried to turn myself in. There’s no cop there.”
Mr. Good, the 2009 alumnus, was initially brought to the school by force; he said men in a van grabbed him off the street at his parents’ request — an occurrence known as “gooning.”
One day, he hurt his elbow and was sent home on a 24-hour pass.
Knowing his parents planned to send him back, he ran away from home and hid in a friend’s basement until his 18th birthday some days later, when he was free to leave the school on his own.
He wrote his parents a note, “Hey, I love you guys, but you don’t understand.”
Other students, desperate, saw another means of escape.
“I tried to commit suicide one night in my bunk,” said Walter Huff, now 27 and living in Chicago.
“I thought it was the only way out. I took a belt and put it around my neck and put it on the top bunk, and woke up the next morning with the belt.
It had broken.
In 2007, a 17-year-old student died after jumping from an upper floor of the school.
Ms. Becker, the former nurse, remembers treating students who she believed had attempted to take their lives.
“A young lady, it was winter, but the pond had a slight freeze,” she recalled. “The girl had threatened suicide and went out and jumped in the pond.”
Others brought the student to Ms. Becker, who treated her for hypothermia.
Ms. Ianelli, who calls herself the “crypt keeper” of the alumni, believes that the school left some students more damaged than they were when they arrived.
“We call ourselves an endangered species,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Ianelli said she was repeatedly groped by an employee of the school and then reprimanded when she tried to report the behavior.
The experience left her so distraught that she grabbed a plastic jug marked “bleach” and entered a walk-in cooler.
She gulped the liquid.
“I was so excited to die,” she said.
Nothing happened. She looked at the jug again and saw another word written on the other side: “vinegar.”
‘Will You Do It With Me?’
James Clemente, 61, of Trumbull, Conn., sent his son Mark to the Family Foundation School in 2002 when the boy was 17; he described it as a last-ditch effort to treat Mark’s heroin addiction. “I thought it was a great school,” Mr. Clemente said. “He was getting an education, not just going to rehab.”
“They had all the tools he needed to use,” Mr. Clemente said of the school. “He just didn’t use them.”
Anne Moss Rogers sent her son, Charles, to the school in 2012 in hopes of treating his depression and anxiety.
He left the school in 2014 and killed himself a year later while suffering from withdrawal from heroin.
“When Charles died, there was one before him and one right after. A girl overdosed, then he died, then a child died due to alcohol, a car accident.”
She believes the school actually prolonged Charles’ life: “He would have been dead at 17.”
Ms. Rogers, who became a speaker and mental health advocate after losing her son, said the list of dead classmates should be placed in a larger perspective.
“These are high-risk kids,” she said. “We’re in an opioid epidemic and a suicide epidemic.”
Jon Martin-Crawford, a former student at Family Foundation School, told a congressional panel in 2008 of the school’s problems.
Jon Martin-Crawford, an alumnus, achieved notoriety among his peers when he testified about the school before a congressional hearing regarding treatment programs for teens in 2008.
“The nightmares and psychological scars of being dragged from your home to a place in the middle of nowhere; restrained in blankets and Duct tape; assaulted, verbally and physically — those scars and that trauma never go away,” Mr. Martin-Crawford, then 28, testified.
“For my friends who have since died from suicide because of the nightmares or those who still suffer the nightmares, our time and our voice will not be in vain.”
Seven years later, he hanged himself.
“It’s like, who’s next?” a former student, Sara McGrath Brathwaite, said when contacted by a reporter earlier this year. “Why?”
Thirteen former students died in 2017, among them a nurse anesthetist in Colorado, Suzanne Leffler, who took her life with drugs through an IV from her job.
Ms. Leffler and another teen, Lauren Durnin, met at the school in the 1990s and remained friends. “She was always trying to make you laugh,” Ms. Durnin said.
“She just seemed like she had it all together.”
In August, the police went to Ms. Leffler’s house and found her on her bed. “She had put herself to sleep”.
Ms. Durnin said she found herself contemplating her own death.
“All I could think to myself is, ‘You could have called me and I would have been there for you,’” she said.
“And at the time, after she died, I thought if she had said, ‘Will you do it with me?’ I would have.”
Tree of Lost Souls
Today, a sports camp stands where the school once did, the buildings on the property under new ownership.
Roads once dirt are paved now, but off-season at the camp, they are quiet.
There is the pond where the girl dropped through the ice.
There is the old barn.
Ms. Boysick, the former student who described the room with rugs on the walls, said she was repeatedly sexually abused in the barn by a teacher.
She recently went to the police, after almost two decades, to press charges. The statute of limitations had passed, she was told. Nothing could be done.
A white pickup drove past the property one evening in April. Behind the wheel was Randy Whiting, 64, whose family has owned the property for many years, and who used to work in maintenance at the school.
He was an insider and an outsider at the same time, his front-row seat unrelated to education or the school’s cause.
News of recent deaths among alumni has found him, too. “You know some of them, and you hear it,” Mr. Whiting said.
He believes the school did a lot of good for a lot of teenagers. “They’re the ones you don’t hear much about,” he said. “There were some of the kids you just can’t reach.”
Some of those apparently beyond reach make their appearances on Ms. Ianelli’s Facebook page, alongside victims of tragic accidents.
In January, an alumnus crossing a busy road in Moonachie, N.J., was struck and killed in a hit-and-run collision.
He became No. 94.
In April, reports of more deaths arrived back-to-back-to-back.
A 27-year-old man was killed in a scooter accident in Florida. In Saratoga Springs, N.Y., a 35-year-old graduate and medical equipment salesman, Kyle Nelson, learned that his stepfather had died overnight.
When he left to go to his grieving mother’s home the next morning, he dropped dead of a heart attack.
In July, when some past deaths were added, the list reached, and then passed, 100.
Last year, Ms. Ianelli and others from the school planted a tree near the property in Hancock, beside a Catholic church in Long Eddy.
They placed a plaque before it and named it the Lost Souls Tree.
Up close, markings can be read on rocks, remembering dead friends, but in the winter, the tree is bare and slight, easily missed when passing by.
Sept. 2, 2018
Photo Credits: Andrew Seng and Niko J. Kallianiotis for The New York Times , Andrew Burton/Getty Images, Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press