When the 10th grader pulled out his cell phone in class — and refused to put it away — he knew he was breaking the strict rules at Camelot Academy of Escambia, the school he’d attended for the past two years. But he wasn’t expecting the punishment that followed.
An administrator charged with enforcing discipline at Camelot Academy, Jamal Tillery, struck him across the face and dragged him into an empty classroom, hitting him until he fell to the floor, according to a police report. Then, the student told police, Tillery hit him with a trash can.
The injuries were serious enough that when the student, who was 18 at the time, got home from school, his mother called the police and took him to the hospital.
The incident in Escambia, in 2011, wasn’t the first time Tillery had been accused of hurting a student. Six years earlier, when he was teaching at another school, he’d pled guilty to charges related to the assault of a 10-year-old. There, according to a police affidavit, things followed a similar pattern: Tillery dragged a disobedient boy into another room, threw him against a door, and began to hit him with his own shoes, shouting as a witness looked on about how he would not be disrespected. Afterward, the report said, the boy's face was marked with red, his fingers bruised from where he had tried to block the blows. Tillery had pled guilty to disorderly conduct and harassment.
This time around, Tillery was arrested and charged with battery. He took a pretrial diversion that allowed his record to be wiped clean. Tillery maintains he was protecting himself: the student, a troubled kid with a record, struck him first, he said, and he never used a trash can.
School administrators say they are confident Tillery did nothing wrong and was defending himself from a violent student. With Tillery’s record clean, Camelot Academy brought him back on board. The school had no idea that Tillery had a history of hurting a child — the 2005 incident with the 10-year-old, they said, had not come up in an FBI background check. That same year, as Camelot Academy’s director of operations, Tillery was accused of hurting two more students in physical altercations, police records show — one of them a 13-year-old boy. No charges were filed in either case.
Inside all of Camelot’s publicly funded schools, security, order, and behavior modification take precedence over academics.
Camelot Academy of Escambia isn’t a public school, though it is funded by taxpayer dollars. It is part of a fast-growing for-profit company, owned by private equity investors in California, that school districts hire to handle their most difficult students: kids with behavioral problems, those struggling to keep up, and those at risk of dropping out of the school system entirely.
Camelot Education now owns 43 schools nationwide, making it one of the country’s largest alternative education providers. It has made a growing business out of taking in troubled kids at sharp discounts compared to publicly run schools, allowing districts to slash costs — and, at times, to improve their own metrics by shunting off their lowest-performing students. The vast majority of students who come to Camelot are black and Latino.
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The company has built its business on the “Camelot model,” a rigid system of strict discipline that is based, in part, on juvenile prisons and residential treatment centers. Inside all of Camelot’s publicly funded schools, security, order, and behavior modification take precedence over academics. A rigid hierarchy pervades student life: Top-ranking kids are assigned to an elite club, dressed in special uniforms and given privileges to oversee their peers — correcting their posture, their attire, their behavior. Students are ranked regularly on charts posted throughout the school, where the names of kids who are struggling are highlighted in bright red ink.
“We really subscribe to a sociological model, as compared to a psychiatric model,” said Todd Bock, the company’s CEO. “We believe kids are problems because of the environments they come from. So what we do is behaviorally treat kids — we have to get to their emotional and social issues before we can get to what they’re here for, which is to pull them up academically.”
Classes often begin with a recitation: the "Five Norms," which dictate how students behave and treat one another, and the “Seven Levels of Redirection,” a system of escalating responses to misbehavior. The levels begin with a friendly gesture, such as a raised eyebrow, and increase all the way to a Level 7 — “emergency staff intervention" — in which a staff member restrains a student by pinning a student against a wall, arms wrenched behind their backs.
The company says such extreme measures, demonstrated to every new student during orientation, are used rarely — only when kids are in imminent danger of hurting themselves or others.
A string of violent encounters between staff and students have highlighted how the company’s strict, confrontational model can boil over.
But four former teachers told BuzzFeed News that pushing students against walls to restrain them was a regular occurrence at Camelot schools. One said he himself was involved in as many as 10 Level 7 redirections a day at a Camelot school for students with behavioral problems. A string of violent encounters between staff and students — including one, in 2014, that led to two staffers being jailed — have highlighted how the company’s strict, confrontational model can boil over.
There is little to no public data available about how many of Camelot’s students perform on state exams, attendance, or graduation metrics. But the company can claim modest academic gains that set it apart from many other alternative school companies — results that have positioned it to spread even more quickly, as demand rises for school districts to slash costs and boost their metrics.
Camelot executives argue that its model works. Juvenile justice activists, however, say the Camelot system is yet another funnel for the school-to-prison pipeline — an educational model that uses the public school system to treat mostly black and Latino children as criminals before most have ever been convicted of a crime.
The company’s approach to behavior modification,“really seems to mirror everything that doesn’t work in prisons. It’s really troubling,” said Mishi Faruqee, the national field director of the Youth First Initiative, a juvenile justice reform group. “The youth prison model has completely failed — it does not rebuild students.”
Camelot's Phoenix Academy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Camelot students are reminded just how different their school is from the moment they arrive each morning. Getting through the door requires a full-body pat-down, and students are forbidden from bringing anything — no backpacks, notebooks, textbooks, or pencils — into Camelot facilities, meaning there can essentially be no homework. This level of security is applied to teenagers regardless of whether or not they've ever committed a crime: students who have been expelled from their schools, as well as school dropouts, kids with learning disabilities, girls who became pregnant.
Once inside, students begin each day the same way: with motivation, tough love, and recitation in an all-school assembly called “Townhall.”
One morning in March, students gathered for Townhall in the gym of a Camelot school in Chicago, where a motivational video was projected onto a cinderblock wall. Excel Academy of South Shore is one of five schools Camelot has opened in Chicago, many of them clustered in its most troubled neighborhoods — places so torn by gang violence that shootings on the sidewalks outside of Camelot school buildings are regular features in the local news. Most of Camelot’s Chicago schools recruit students who have fallen behind on their high school credits — “overage and under-credited,” they’re called.
As a speaker onscreen barks about the keys to success, students in white Excel shirts and striped ties look on silently from rows of folding chairs. The newest students sit in the front row, where, staff say, they can be under closer supervision.
Standing over their classmates in Townhall are students inducted into the school’s elite student government because of good behavior and grades. They wear purple and gold sweaters neatly buttoned over their uniforms, hands folded behind their backs. The group is known as the Broncos, named after the school’s mascot; a mile away, in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, they’re called the Bulls.
"I'm here to tell you, number one, that most of you say you want to be successful, but you don't want it bad," the speaker on the video rumbles. "You don't want it as bad as you want to party. You don't want it as bad as you want to be cool."
Outside the half-filled gym at Excel, students are still trickling into school, passing through a metal detector before being patted down by a staff member. As a boy pulls off his belt, a female staff member kneels in front of another student, running her hands down the outside of the girl’s legs, and then the inside. She finds a small blue card in the front pocket of the girl’s khakis and examines it, turning it over in her hands.
At some schools, when the pat-down is complete, students trudge forward, remove their shoes, and shake them upside down.
Camelot says the full-body searches are necessary, even in schools that are not meant for students with behavioral problems. “It’s about safety,” said Anthony Haley, one of the company’s executives. “It makes the kids feel safe.”
Faruqee, of the Youth First Initiative, said the pieces of the prison system in Camelot’s model — from the behavioral rankings to the pat-downs and the use of restraint — are “completely ineffective. It’s very harmful to treat students as though they’re living in a vacuum, focusing on the output and just modifying their behavior.”
While Bock’s time working in correctional facilities has molded some of his thinking, he said, it is mistaken to see Camelot as an extension of that system. “If I believed in what juvenile justice stood for, I would still be working in juvenile justice,” he said. “What Camelot does is the real answer for helping kids get out of the system and helping them achieve self-actualization.”
As the daily assembly at Excel South Shore ends, students file out of the gym in hushed groups. First, as always, are the Broncos, who station themselves along the hall like sentries, watching as their classmates walk in small, quiet lines to the day’s first class. Boys step aside to let girls up the stairs first, because, as one of the Five Norms declares, a Camelot student is “always a lady or a gentleman.”
Bought out by a private equity firm called the Riverside Company in 2011, Camelot stands out among companies that have made a business out of educating troubled children. Instead of operating in just one state, as most do, Camelot has spread nationally, running dozens of schools in six states and hiring lobbyists to help it expand into more.
Camelot grows in part because the company can point to results — modest academic gains at some schools and increases in graduation rates — that appeal to school districts in a field where many other companies perform abysmally.
By siphoning off students who are struggling the most — those who are furthest behind academically or least likely to graduate — some districts can use Camelot to pump up graduation rates and test scores at their flagship high schools, allowing them to better attract students and funding, and avoid sanctions from states.
In Florida, school districts have used alternative schools to mask dropout rates, a ProPublica investigation in February found. Struggling students, who were steered into alternative schools and eventually left, were coded as withdrawals taking GED classes rather than as dropouts, the outlet found — giving districts an easy way to appear to meet statewide accountability rules.
If Camelot’s executives get their way, the company, and the Camelot model, could shape the future of alternative education.
Beyond boosting metrics, school districts stand to profit when they work with Camelot, saving thousands of dollars per student each year compared to the costs of running their own programs. Last year, the cash-strapped school district in Millville, New Jersey, cut its alternative education costs in half by privatizing its alternative school with Camelot — saving $600,000 and the jobs of 45 employees. Camelot was dramatically cheaper than the other private company that bid on the contract — $5,000 a year less per student.
At a Millville school board meeting to discuss privatizing the district's schools with Camelot, a board member worried about how the company "can do it for what we’re told is a half or a third of what we’re doing it for and still make a profit for their private equity firm."
But Camelot's program was "better and more cost effective" than anything run by the district, another board member said. Privatization was the new normal, he argued: "The majority of high schools did away with programs like this a while ago and instead send students to a private ... placement."
“What we do is so valuable to taxpayers and our school district partners, because we specialize in that group of kids that have not had success in traditional public school,” said Bock. “I would say 95% or more of our school districts save money by contracting with Camelot.”
What Camelot brings to the table — cutting public spending on education, profit-driven experimentation in alternative kinds of schooling, and the potential to boost test scores and graduation rates — is now in high demand in Washington, DC, where a longtime advocate of education privatization is now the country’s top school official. Under the tenure of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has called the traditional public school system a “dead end” that is ripe for private sector innovation and competition, Camelot appears poised to take off nationally.
For now, the world of alternative education is a hazy space — with a clear demand for privatization but without market leaders or models. If Camelot’s executives get their way, the company could shape the future of alternative education.
Under the guidance of its private equity owners, Camelot has already pulled off an ambitious expansion plan in Chicago, where it is now a dominant player in the city’s burgeoning alternative education system, taking in $50 million in contracts over four years. It is working to open new schools nationwide, including in Georgia, where it has hired two politically connected lobbyists. And it launched a new line of business in Las Vegas late last year, advising the school district there on how to improve its own alternative schools.