Barrett Wolfe is going back to school.
And he’s bringing a camera.
Though, since he’s an alum of Hidden Lake Academy, it probably won’t be a chummy class reunion for the Atlanta-based filmmaker.
It was back in 2004 that the now defunct boarding school suddenly became Wolfe’s new home.
The then-15-year-old Atlanta native arrived at the wooded Camp Wahsega Road facility with little warning that his life was about to change drastically.
“My parents packed a bag without telling me,” he said with a grin and shake of his head.
His surprise turned to shock when the teen was told he wasn’t allowed to leave.
“Once you get there they strip search you and tell you you’re going to live there for the next 18 to 24 months, maybe longer,” he stated.
That was his introduction to Hidden Lake Academy (HLA), a high-priced boarding school that was once home to more than 150 students and was one of the biggest employers in Lumpkin County.
Wolfe didn't know those specifics at the time.
He just knew he missed his friends, his home and his dog.
“You’re only a teenager for a few years and to be told at least a year and a half of your life has been taken away from you and it’s very hard to accept,” he stated.
You are thrown into this bizarre, desert island situation that you physically can't escape from. No phones, no music, no internet and no contact with people from your old life.”
Now, Wolfe is headed back to that old life.
And, this time, it’s on his own terms.
"I'm here to just put the pieces together,” said the 30-year-old while sitting in The Nugget’s office.
Those pieces, he admits, are complicated.
That’s why he’s making a documentary about it.
“The truth is stranger than fiction,” he said. “You couldn’t make this stuff up.”
FOCUSING ON THE PAST
Hidden Lake Academy billed itself as a therapeutic boarding school where “troubled” teens could work through their issues by participating in mandatory group therapy sessions while attending traditional high school classes.
From 1994 to 2011, students from around the nation came to the school, usually at the recommendation of educational consultants.
Tuition was costly, at a reported $5,000 per month, and students were expected to stay for up to 24 months.
For years Hidden Lake Academy students and faculty had a visible role in the community as the school’s green school bus could often be seen rolling through town on various field trips and community service outings.
That all began to unravel when the school faced a potential class action lawsuit, filed by several parents, in 2006.
Though the charges were varied, the main accusation was that HLA was knowingly accepting high risk violent teens despite assurances to parents that they were not.
“Hidden Lake’s reluctance to reject court-ordered, severely disturbed and violent students stems from the fact that it is highly profitable to admit such students,” read the civil action suit.
School founder Len Buccellato, who has since left Dahlonega, denied those accusations in The Nugget at the time.
The case was reportedly settled out of court years later. But the damage was done.
Soon after news of the suit broke in The Nugget, enrollment plummeted and employees began to complain about missing paychecks.
Wolfe arrived at the school a little more than a year before that controversy.
Wolfe said he was going through some teen-related troubles at the time he was enrolled at HLA, but nothing that he thought warranted a trip to such a school.
“I wasn’t involved in drugs,” he said. “I drank some and would argue with my parents, but I was 15.”
Wolfe said he was also bullied relentlessly by a classmate but could find no help from teachers.
“This was before the current anti-bullying climate in schools,” he said. “When I eventually did give in and fight back, I got kicked out. So to avoid me ending up in a [youth detention center], my parents sent me to Hidden Lake.”
From day one at HLA, Wolfe felt as though he was in over his head.
“There were definitely some dangerous kids there,” he said. “But you couldn’t tell your parents that you were in danger because the school would monitor any contact you had with your parents.”
And since punishments at the school often involved physical labor, Wolfe also became leery of certain staff members.
“There were people working there who truly did care about us and felt for us, but aside from a shoulder to cry on, they couldn't do much about the decisions management was making,” he stated in a follow-up email to The Nugget. “The counselors only worked 9-5, so most of the time you were at the mercy of whichever day staff happened to be working.”
Wolfe added that students were also forced to participate in something called Fallout, a session where they were expected to report the mis-doings of their fellow classmates.
“Every student was required to tell the staff about misconduct by someone else and, if they didn’t tell on someone else, they would be punished,” he said. “…This damaged friendships constantly and created a general sense of distrust among students at all times.”
Wolfe said he learned to survive in that environment. And at times he even thrived, as he stood out academically and earned the Headmaster’s Award.
However, he adds with a chuckle, that he now wishes he had shaken things up a bit more.
“If I could do it all again I would get into a little more trouble there,” he stated. "…I resent that I was too scared of getting in trouble to have fun and take risks when I had the chance. I had this foolish idea that if I was good enough my parents would pull me from the program. That never happened.”
Once his therapeutic courses were complete, 18 months later, Wolfe graduated from HLA.
And it was then, he said, that he experienced some of the hardest times as he struggled to adjust back to life outside the woods.
“It was really hard to relate to normal happy-go-lucky kids after being subjected to so many disaffected people,” he stated.
Though he added that he was fortunate to take some new skills with him as well.
Wolfe credits his work with part-time staff member and Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Dallas Kinney as having a pivotal influence on his life.
“Dallas taught me a lot and treated me like an artist,” he stated. “I think I really found my eye for photography under his guidance. He’s a great man.”
Wolfe’s photography has grown and evolved since those days as he now focuses on more mature, stylized portraiture.
He has also gone on to fill many roles in the film industry including his recent direction of the independent short film The Intruder. Wolfe is also currently producing a new short film based on an Edgar Allan Poe story that has yet to be adapted for the screen.
After leaving HLA, Wolfe kept in contact with many friends and acquaintances through Facebook. And he watched with sadness as several of those friends passed away, the victims of the same issues they struggled with at HLA.
In fact, it has happened so frequently that he’s found himself plagued by recurring questions.
Did the school’s methods work for students?
Or did they hurt?
That is the overarching question of his documentary.
“I have a lot of unanswered questions with so many of my friends dying,” Wolfe stated. “It makes you wonder. There was never a real investigation on any of this.”
Fellow HLA alum Rob Cook has the same questions.
The former Atlanta resident spent 24 months at the school and recently sat down for an interview with Wolfe.
He said it brought back long buried memories.
“I think it’s a hard story to tell for each of us,” he said. “There were questions that I hadn’t thought about in years. And thinking about those moments were hard. The hardest part is talking about people that have passed on that we were all close with because there have been so many.”
Like Wolfe, Cook said his hardest years were after his graduation from the school.
“At the end of the day we weren’t prepared for it,” he said. “I think there was a sense of freedom that I was not used to and I ran away with it. I took off on a rampage with everything I was not used to.”
Cook has since kicked those harmful habits and is now married and the father of two.
And he said it felt good to talk about his days at his alma mater.
“I finally felt it was time for me to lay it all out there instead of commenting on [an HLA] Facebook page,” he said. “It was kind of cathartic to just sit and let it all out there.”
NO ‘HIDDEN’ AGENDA
Former HLA Headmaster Joe Stapp hasn’t been approached about the film yet. But when talking to The Nugget he said he has no qualms with such a film, as long as it’s handled fairly.
“My concern is probably the same as anybody,” said the Dawsonville-based counselor. “They’d want it to be balanced. I have no problem with someone saying things are done wrong because I know no place is perfect.”
Cook had similar concerns when he was first approached by Wolfe.
He said his feelings are mixed about his time spent there and he didn’t want to be a part of anything that could be interpreted as a “slam” against the school.
Wolfe put those feelings to rest as he let Cook tell his own story without overly directing him.
“At first I was skeptical but actually I realized that he doesn’t have an agenda,” he said.
That is something Wolfe has tried to stress while talking to subjects on and off the record.
“I’m not coming at it in a vengeful way,” he said. “I’m coming at it from an intellectual investigation kind of way. I want to make a good intelligent movie.”
AN OLD HAUNT
As for HLA itself, the property is now home to Camp Hidden Lake, a Catholic retreat center for the North Georgia region. An online look at the Life Teen location now shows pictures of happy campers and Instagram-ready scenic shots.
Wolfe recently returned to the old campus for the first time in preparation for his project. And even though the facility serves a much different purpose now, he still got that old familiar feeling when pulling down the long wooded driveway.
“It felt haunted,” he said.
Though he admits that kind of thing is to be expected as he embarks on a movie-making mission that is both personal and professional.
“Doing this documentary and talking to the people that were there is helping me close a lot of doors that for me personally, have been open for a long time,” he said.
And if that means shaking things up in the process, so be it.