During an August interview on Lori Corken’s podcast, Ben Stincer, the senior counselor at FullCircle, a support group for Denver-area teens struggling with addiction that uses the controversial Enthusiastic Sobriety methodology, described how the group got started in Denver.
“It opened in my truck,” says Stincer. “I met with families in my truck. Crying mom sitting in the passenger seat, and a kid, and we’d sit in my truck, and we’d just talk. Then it went from one kid, to seven kids. Luckily, and very graciously, Melissa Mouton allowed us to use 5280 High School after hours, so we would go there and do meetings.”
FullCircle and their sister organization, Cornerstone, have been accused by former clients of being a “cult” that encourages teens to engage in risky, sometimes illegal behavior, and of encouraging racism, homophobia, and animal abuse. Father John Bonavitacola, a Catholic priest and the founder and executive director of FullCircle, calls the allegations against his organization a “smear campaign.”
Parents and former clients of FullCircle report that shortly after joining the group, they were encouraged to change schools and attend 5280 High School. “Ben talked a lot about it,” recalls Michelle, who started attending FullCircle in March of 2020. Michelle asked that her real name not be used in this reporting. “A lot of kids talked to me about going to their school, 5280.”
5280 is a public charter school within Denver Public Schools (DPS), and classifies itself as a “sober” high school, specifically for students in recovery. It is governed by its own board of directors, separate from the DPS Board of Education. A spokesperson with DPS said oversight of public charter schools like 5280 by DPS is “minimal.”
Jacob Zimmer, who was featured in a Colorado Public Radio story about 5280 in 2018, worked at the FullCircle Program in Tempe, Arizona, before taking a job at 5280, according to his LinkedIn profile. Kate McCormick says Erin Salehiamin, 5280’s director of operations from 2020 to 2021, was her parent sponsor. Michelle and her friend Rosemary, who Michelle recruited into FullCircle in 2021, both remember Keith Hayes, 5280’s director of recovery, driving students to meetings and functions at FullCircle. Hayes was also the subject of a StoryCorps segment in March — at the end of the recording a student complains that there are students who think Cornerstone is a cult.
Frank Szachta, the owner and director of Cornerstone, is listed in the minutes of an Aug. 19, 2021, 5280 board meeting as being part of the school’s expansion committee, alongside 5280 board member Paul Scudo, 5280’s Executive Director Melissa Mouton, Salehiamin, Stincer, and Hayes. The responsibilities of the committee included, documenting 5280 High School’s standard operating procedures, creating a strategic plan that includes a funding plan and budget for an expansion, and outlining an “outreach/recruitment plan” for students for an expansion.
In an email, Mouton denied any kind of official relationship between 5280 and the Enthusiastic Sobriety programs. “We aren’t affiliated with Cornerstone or Full Circle, however a portion of our students attend one of those programs for their after-school recovery support,” she said. “We require all students to participate in some out-of-school recovery program, but do not require any specific program — we leave it up to the family and student to decide what works best for them. Some of our students choose one of those programs, others do not.”
Mouton also confirmed that Stincer held FullCircle meetings at 5280, and noted, “5280 commonly allows community groups to use their facilities after hours; this is a very common practice among all schools, and a way to show good faith to the community by sharing access to public buildings.”
Mouton also confirmed that Hayes provides transportation for students, but notes that he does it for a variety of programs. “He also gives rides to students to 12-step meetings, Sandstone, and other intensive out-patient programs, Denver STEP program, etc,” she said. “Again, we support our students regardless of which recovery program their family chooses to engage in and are agnostic as to which one each family chooses. Our staff providing rides to students on occasion is part of our policies and procedures. Providing rides if needed is a part of ensuring equitable access for all students, regardless of family background or ability to afford a car or Uber ride. We’re a small school, more like a family; and we operate differently than traditional, large high schools.”
Szachta said he has worked with Mouton in the past, but was unaware of ever being on any kind of committee. Mouton claims it was an error on 5280’s part. “I believe the reason that the minutes are unclear is that they were created by our Treasurer since our Board Secretary could not attend that evening, and this was her first time ever creating minutes for the board,” she said in an email. “I will make sure that we do a better job in the future of clarifying who is a “visitor” in future minutes, and will discuss with the board about revising these minutes.”
Mouton also emphasized that, as Denver’s “only sober high school,” 5280 naturally has connections with the broader sobriety and recovery community in Denver, of which FullCircle and Cornerstone are a part. “Some of our students engage in these programs; others do not,” said Mouton. “Likewise, some of FullCircle and Cornerstone clients engage in 5280’s programs, others do not. There are no direct ties; no affiliations; no expectations either way on youth participating in each program–it is up to each individual family to choose what is best for their child. There will be statistical anomalies when comparing the organizations because we are the only recovery high school in the state, and there are only a handful of programs that support youth. I understand that there may appear to be an affiliation based on data, but when there is a monopoly in a region, the statistics and data will be skewed.”
Dave Larsen, the former director of Cornerstone who left Enthusiastic Sobriety in 2003, confirms Mouton’s explanation. “I would vouch that there’s not a direct relationship other than the fact that she went for the full-blown recovery school status,” he says. “And because there’s no other options, it would be a natural fit for people in Cornerstone.”
When Larsen was running Cornerstone, in the early 2000s, the group directed students to SOAR High School in Broomfield. “Conchetta [Robinson, founder of SOAR High School], who is a friend of ours, somebody I care deeply about, took the initiative to start SOAR on her own,” explains Larsen. “She was a parent in the Cornerstone Group, and her and some other people got a nonprofit together and created SOAR. At that time, Cornerstone had several hundred families involved, so there were hundreds of teenagers and SOAR was pretty much full of Cornerstone people. But the staff were not our staff.”
Alayna, who asked not to use her real name, was part of Cornerstone from 2001 to 2004, and described it as “one of the worst experiences of my life.” Alayna was hospitalized following a drug overdose, and had to be a part of a treatment program as a condition of release.
“All the other [treatment programs] were very boring and stuffy, and seemed mostly comprised of doing workbooks and watching videos in an office building,” she says. “Cornerstone was fun, and they said I could smoke, and they were all cussing and they were young, and even the counselors were really young and they all seemed really happy and excited.”
Alayna attended the support group, which is a function today filled by FullCircle, but at the time was offered by Cornerstone in addition to their outpatient program. “I didn’t go through their outpatient program because my family couldn’t afford it,” she says. “For all the three and a half years I was there, they were pretty mercilessly harassing me about the fact that I hadn’t gone through outpatient. The counselors treated me differently. They were mean to me. They would tell new people that I wasn’t a winner because I hadn’t gone through outpatient. They would tell people not to hang out with me, not to talk to me. We did insane, dangerous things constantly. I crashed my car six times driving on no sleep, racing other people, playing things like car tag in Colorado in the winter. There was no actual, like, personal growth that ever happened. There was nothing — no tools taught to us to stay sober. It was just we were running around doing insane things until three in the morning and there was no time to get high because you were constantly surrounded by the group.”
Alayna attended SOAR High School while she was at Cornerstone. “They did convince me to attend their high school, which cost a bunch of money,” she says. “I don’t remember how much it cost, but probably the year I was there it was probably like $8,000 to $10,000. Technically it wasn’t affiliated with them, but it was all cornerstone people in it. And everyone who was involved in the upper part [of the school, a reference to Robinson, who was a Cornerstone parent] was involved in Cornerstone. It was in Broomfield above a pizza shop, and it was just American Homeschool pamphlets. You did the pamphlets until you could get a homeschool diploma. It turned out to be completely unaccredited, and then I found out eight years after graduating that I didn’t technically have a high school diploma.”
Liz Nickerson, a board member of the Enthusiastic Sobriety Abuse Alliance (ESAA), says Enthusiastic Sobriety programs use sober high schools as another way of controlling members. “They do encourage kids to drop out of their normal high school,” she says. “It is a tactic of keeping kids isolated, keeping kids only with other FullCircle or Cornerstone group members. It’s still controlling their social interactions, and so if they can find a school where they can predominantly send the kids whose parents are insisting they finish high school, they’re able to clump the kids together so they’re less likely to branch out, less likely to be exposed to the outside world, or just have, you know, any more critical thinking or experiences.”
Dr. Steve Hassan, a leading cult expert and the author of Combating Cult Mind Control, says that isolation is frequently a tool of cults or organizations that exercise coercive influence over their members.
“People incrementally get influenced with increasing degrees,” Hassan says. “The recruiter doesn’t start out by saying, ‘Cut off from your family, quit your job and join us.’ They typically ask to come to a meeting, come to a dinner, come to a lecture, and it gets increasingly like a trap. You go deeper in and it gets narrower and narrower. All mind controllers want to isolate the person from any other sources of counter influence, which is, in particular, family, close friends, former teachers.”
Szachta denies any claims that his organization is a cult, and says that what the ESAA describes as “isolation” is simply removing vulnerable addicts from negative influences that could lead to relapse.
“Getting sober is really tough,” he says. “Public high school is like going into the lion’s den for these kids.”
When asked if Mouton was aware of the controversy over Enthusiastic Sobriety — the fun felonies, teen nicotine use — Mouton responded, “We’re in the business of education and helping kids with their substance use. As far as telling other programs what to do, or how to be, that’s a little bit outside of our scope.”
The 1979 60 Minutes exposé of Bob Meehan’s Enthusiastic Sobriety programs — then called the Palmer Drug Abuse Program, or PDAP — revealed Meehan’s lucrative arrangement with Texas hospitals. In addition to his PDAP salary, Meehan received payments from hospitals where youth in his programs would be referred to for inpatient treatment.
Today, Enthusiastic Sobriety programs continue to have close relationships with credentialed medical professionals.
Dr. Christian Thurstone, director of Denver Health’s STEP [Substance abuse Treatment, Education, and Prevention] Program has worked with the Crossroads Program in Missouri, and quoted Szachta repeatedly in his 2015 book Clearing the Haze: Helping Families Face Teen Addiction. Thurstone and other staff at Denver Health regularly refer clients to Cornerstone and FullCircle. Szachta says there has never been any kind of financial arrangement between himself or Cornerstone and Thurstone.
Anne Mitchell, a Boulder attorney, reached out to STEP after her son got into trouble at school in 2013. She was concerned her son’s drug use, which she now realizes was “minimal” at the time, required a serious intervention. Unable to find an in-patient facility, she turned to Thurstone. “In desperation, I called Dr. Thurstone and I said, ‘I don’t know what to do. [My son] is asking to go to an inpatient rehab, and they’re all full,” said Mitchell. “I can’t afford them even if they weren’t full. I don’t know what to do.’ He said, ‘Call Frank [Szachta] at this number.”
McCormick was also referred by a counselor at Denver Health. “I would almost put money on the fact that our counselor at STEP did not have any idea, really, what he was sending us to,” she says.
Thurstone declined CTR’s request for an interview. Denver Health did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment regarding previous reporting on Enthusiastic Sobriety programs by Atavist and Yes! Weekly, or yesterday’s installment of this series.
In addition to referrals from Denver Health, Cornerstone also maintains contracts with Arapahoe and Douglas County’s Departments of Human Services.
According to an Arapahoe County spokesperson, the county has paid Cornerstone $189,465 to treat 25 youth since 2011. Douglas County has paid $92,756.00 for services provided to 19 clients since 2015, and does not currently have a contract with Cornerstone.
Szachta says he doesn’t keep statistics on the efficacy of Enthusiastic Sobriety programs. Paul Scudo, a board member of 5280 High School and the executive director of Step Denver, an adult residential recovery program not affiliated with Denver Health, says the 12-step model, which is the foundation of Enthusiastic Sobriety, works. “My opinion, both as a person in recovery and as a professional, is that the 12-step model has been proven to work for those people that fully engage in it,” he says. “Since 1935, over 23 million people have recovered from the disease of addiction by getting into and staying in a 12-step program. So treatment centers, while they offer all these clinical components still by and large, recommend and have as a part of their programming 12-step programs. Because once the individual leaves the safety or the bubble of treatment, they need to have something. To continue the process of keeping the disease of addiction in remission. And that 12-step process has been proven to work. And it’s been proven to work for anything and any type of addiction, whether it is a substance use addiction, gambling, sex, work, money, food, whatever it may be.”
Professionals are conflicted on the efficacy of 12-step programs. Lance Dodes, the author of The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, analyzed Alcoholics Anonymous’ retention rates, studies on sobriety, and rates of active involvement, and suggested that AA’s actual success rate is between 5 and 8 percent. Former members of Enthusiastic Sobriety programs say their drug use actually got worse during their time in the program.
“I did not in any way, shape or form stay sober,” says SOAR High School alumni Alayna. “I am now, but it took many bouts of homelessness, many bouts of severe, severe drug addiction going through treatment multiple times. I did not trust AA because the steps are so similar to what the group teaches. I did not trust treatment at all. I’m in my thirties now, and just in the last few years have I been able to get to a point where drugs and alcohol aren’t ruining my life.”
For some, being surrounded by teens with substance use issues and minimal supervision is a recipe for disaster. “I had never tried fentanyl before I was in the group,” says Iris, who asked that her real name not be used. “My main drug of choice when I came in was cocaine, ketamine, and alcohol. When I left the group, I had done heroin, fentanyl, all because my friends are like, ‘Hey, might as well.’ When a friend relapses, they’re like, ‘Hey, try this.’”
McCormick’s son started at FullCircle, was referred to Cornerstone, and then to the Step Two residential program in Arizona. She says his time in the program led him to harder and more frequent drug use. “He was a different person, he looked so sick — so frail and pale and not well,” she says of the period after his stint at Step Two, when Cornerstone counselors urged her to let him live with kids in the program. “He’d been doing… all kinds of stuff. Not intentionally fentanyl, but, you know, this is like my biggest fear, right? Because it’s in everything, and you don’t have to want to be doing it to die from it.”
McCormick reports that her son has improved dramatically since leaving Enthusiastic Sobriety. “He’s doing really well now,” she says. “It wasn’t smooth in the beginning. He’s working a full-time job and he’s starting back to classes on Monday, and he got a truck. He’s actually doing really well.”
Mitchell’s son left home after joining FullCircle, at the age of 16, and never came home. She says after leaving Cornerstone he went to California, and then wound up in Phoenix, where he attended FullCircle meetings. He now lives in Minnesota. “I honestly don’t know how much the level of his later drug use — and even current drug use — is related to his time at Cornerstone,” she says. “He has been very steadfast that when he first went to Cornerstone that day that I brought him there to Frank, his actual drug use was really minimal. He’s very clear that being at Cornerstone caused him to do harder and more drugs.”
Scudo says it’s important to take negative accounts of programs with a grain of salt. “My experience in the addiction world is that when folks have a negative experience, whether it’s of their own doing or whether it’s caused by something else, they have a tendency to want to blame the organization, the treatment center, 12-step program that they were a part of,” he says. “If you were to look on our Facebook or Google reviews, you’ll see a number of horrible reviews by former clients or their parents that are disgruntled because they feel like it didn’t work, or we didn’t do things right. In nine out of ten cases, it’s usually the individual trying to manipulate the system, manipulate their family, manipulate the organization, because they’re still caught up in the disease of addiction.”
Szachta notes, “Not every program is for everybody.”
Isabel Lanzetta contributed to this reporting.