Battleground Eldora: Inside an activist group’s crusade to radically reform the Boys State Training School

An artist’s rendering of the Iowa Training School for Boys in Eldora from the early 1900’s. Photos courtesy of Mark Day

Editor’s note: part one in a three-part series

As Iowa Training School for Boys Superintendent Mark Day examines the rows of nondescript, bare-bones beds that comprise the sleeping quarters at his sprawling facility on the west edge of town, he reflects—with a hint of self-deprecation—on the criticism he hears from either side of the spectrum. Is he running a cushy, overly accommodating summer camp for juveniles who are menaces to society or a draconian and abusive teenage prison?

“It’s both, and it’s neither,” he says. “The truth is always somewhere in the middle.”

The kids, it’s often ex-plained, are “the worst of the worst”— they’ve been adjudicated for violent crimes and repeat offenses, and Eldora represents the last chance to reverse course before securing a permanent spot in the correctional system as an adult. The use of physical force as a disciplinary tool is inevitable, it seems, a natural product of the atmosphere.

But Disability Rights Iowa (DRI) doesn’t see it that way. In an explosive 61-page law-suit filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa in Des Moines on November 27, 2017, the activist group charged that officials at the Boys State Training School (BSTS) have sanctioned “un-constitutional and illegal” tactics including “ failing to provide these children with adequate mental health care, administering dangerous psychotropic medication without adequate oversight or informed consent, and unlawfully subjecting these children to solitary confinement and mechanical restraints as physical punishment for minor infractions of the rules that are symptomatic of their illness.

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