Socialite and reality TV star Paris Hilton has been speaking out about abuse she said she suffered at a boarding school in Utah, and on Friday took her push nearly to the school’s front doors.
Hilton organized a protest in a park near Provo Canyon school, along with several hundreds of others who shared stories of abuse they said they suffered there or at similar schools for troubled youth. She is calling for the closure of the school.
“It’s something so traumatic that you don’t even want to think it’s real,” Hilton said in a speech to the crowd. “It’s something I blocked from my memory for forever.”
Hilton and others wore black T-shirts printed with red letters, reading “Survivor” on the back and “Breaking code silent” on the front, a reference to Hilton’s new campaign. Her aim is to shut down what she describes as for-profit institutions which manipulate parents and traumatize youth.
It was Hilton’s first time back to the area since she was there as a teen, when she says she was verbally, emotionally and physically abused in what she described as “torture”. Former students have described being strip-searched, physically and chemically restrained, locked into isolation rooms and severely punished for minor infractions.
Hilton first made the allegations public in the YouTube documentary This is Paris. She has since been joined by other celebrities who said they also attended the school and were abused, including tattoo artist Kat Von D and Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris Jackson.
In a statement on its website, officials at Provo Canyon school said the institution was under different ownership prior to 2000, and “therefore cannot comment on the operations or patient experience prior to that time”. Officials also said: “We are committed to providing high-quality care to youth with special, and often complex, emotional, behavioral and psychiatric needs.”
However, recent accounts of former students reported by the Salt Lake Tribune allege the school restrained children as young as eight years old, locked students into isolation rooms and medically restrained them.
Earlier students described bizarre and disturbing treatment that left them with nightmares for decades. Von D, in a video on Instagram, said she was strip-searched, had her head shaved and was told by a staff member she contracted HIV from tattooing, a lie to try to convince her to stop what would become her career.
In the documentary, Hilton says she got into the nightlife scene in New York as a teenager and would sneak out and go to clubs while her family lived at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
Her exasperated parents sent her away to various programs to straighten out. When she was 17, Hilton was finally sent to what she describes as “the worst of the worst”: Provo Canyon school.
She stayed at Provo for 11 months and says that while there, she was abused mentally and physically, claiming staff would beat her, force her to take unknown pills, watch her shower and send her to solitary confinement without clothes as punishment.
The 39-year-old says the treatment was so “traumatizing” that she suffered nightmares and insomnia for years.
After she went home, she was determined to protect herself and eventually constructed the persona that she embodied when she became famous on the reality show The Simple Life in the early 2000s, the documentary revealed.
Hilton and others at the protest vowed to push forward until all schools that mistreat youths are shut down. After she and others spoke at the park, she led the group in a protest walk until they arrives at the front gates of the school, where she stopped to pose in front of a school sign holding her own poster that said: “Shut down Provo.”
“There is thousands of these schools all around. Provo Canyon is just the first one that I want to go down,” Hilton said. “From there, it will be a domino effect.”