A son's death fueled drive for wilderness-school law

PORTLAND — A woman whose son was killed at a "wilderness-therapy" school last year has been a driving force behind legislation to impose state control over the schools.

The bill, approved by Oregon lawmakers earlier this year, would require wilderness schools to be state licensed and monitored. It will become law on March 1.

Lynn McAward's son, 15-year-old William "Eddie" Lee of Scappoose, died Sept. 18, 2000, while at the Obsidian Trails Outdoor School in Central Oregon.

During a camping trip, when Lee refused to return to the campsite, two counselors tried to lead him back. Finally, they held him face down on the ground until he stopped struggling, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit McAward filed in January.

A state medical examiner's report said Lee died from an injury to an artery on the left side of his neck near the base of his skull. He also suffered two fractures in two vertebrae in his neck.

In Oregon, anyone can set up a wilderness-therapy school. There are now four such operations in the state. They get permits and pay fees to operate on public land, but no agency oversees the quality of programs or the care they offer children.

The new rules would require a minimum number of calories the children must be fed every day, physical examinations of children before they leave on a trip, staff training and strict bookkeeping on everything from staff qualifications to incident reports.

Each licensed school would have to file a $50,000 bond with the state. Enforcement of the regulations would be handled by the State Office for Services to Children and Families.

"She put a face on the discussions we were having, many miles away from where these schools were operating, many miles from where the tragedy occurred," said Ben Westlund, R-Bend, a key backer of the legislation. "She brought an intimacy of the issue to all of our attention that would have been lacking without her help."

Representatives from the wilderness schools helped craft the regulations.

"I don't think there is any way in any industry to prevent all accidents or guarantee there won't be deaths," said Rob Cooley of Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy. "(But) I believe it would be difficult to operate an incompetent program with these regulations."

The Legislature appropriated $47,428 for rule-making and licensing of the schools in the first two years of the program beginning July 1, 2001.

In Lee's case, a Lake County grand jury declined to indict one of the counselors on charges of criminally negligent homicide.

McAward's $1.5 million lawsuit named Obsidian Trails Outdoor School; its parent company, Obsidian Services Inc.; and its president, Gregory Bodenhamer.

That lawsuit is pending.