Lifetime’s ‘Cruel Instruction’ Exposes the Horrors of the Troubled Teen Industry


Mar. 12 2022, Published 10:45 a.m. ET

Lifetime says Cruel Instruction is “ripped from the headlines,” but is it a true story?

The movie — premiering tonight, Saturday, March 12, at 8 p.m. ET — follows Kayla Adams (Kelcey Mawema), who gets expelled from school and sent to a youth residential treatment by her mother (Cynthia Bailey) at the advice of a school counselor.

Once she arrives at the Utah facility, however, Kayla meets Amanda (Morgan Taylor Campbell), “a treatment program veteran who knows exactly what the girls were in for.”

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“Led by headmistress Miss Connie, the staff uses draconian methods including force-feeding medications, arbitrary punishments, solitary confinement, verbal and physical abuse to keep the students in line,” Lifetime explains in a synopsis. “After being pushed to their limits and stripped of their lifelines, including any ability to freely communicate with the outside world, the two young women must band together to survive and fight to expose the abuse before it’s too late.”

Is 'Cruel Instruction' a true story? It's based on real-life experiences.

While many Lifetime movies are direct translations of personal stories — with characters named after their real-life counterparts — a search of headlines doesn’t turn up anyone named Kayla Adams whose story matches that of the Lifetime character.

On The Wendy Williams Show, actress Camryn Manheim — who plays Miss Connie in Cruel Instruction — specified that the movie was inspired by true events. “These two very brave girls came forward and told this story about going to an academy where they were basically tortured,” Camryn said. “They were sent to solitary confinement, their food was regulated, they were put on medications.”

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Those two women are Courtney Konopasek and Ashley J. DeBoer. They both attended Provo Canyon School in Utah and have been open about their experiences on social media. Kayla's story in the film is most closely based on Courtney's real-life experience, and the character of Amanda is based on Ashley's.

"While [Cruel Instruction] is fictionally based on my experience [...] the events that inspired this movie are very real," Courtney shared on Instagram ahead of the film's premiere. "The Troubled Teen Industry is no joke, and I'm so grateful this movie is going to help raise more awareness and shed some light on the things that have happened, and are unfortunately still happening in these places."

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Courtney went on to share some of her experiences at a few different institutions. "At Second Nature (2N) I lived outside in the middle of nowhere in Utah for 72 days, in the rain, snow, and sun. Once I 'graduated' from 2N, I was sent to Explorations in the middle of nowhere Montana, it was yet another wilderness program, and I honestly just couldn't handle it anymore so I was actually kicked out of that program after 11 days for refusing to participate in the program. Which brings us to the infamous Provo Canyon School in Utah, the inspiration behind Cruel Instruction. I spent 226 days there, and I didn't breathe fresh air for months."

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Ashley also shared some details of her own experience with teen treatment programs, including the story of how she ended up on life support after a particularly harrowing health crisis.

"At Provo Canyon School, I developed pneumonia to the point my oxygen levels had dropped dangerously low," she wrote. "A few days after getting seen at the local hospital, my lungs felt like they were squeezing together. When I tried to ask to go back to the hospital I was told I was attention-seeking, then when I asked the next shift I was then in trouble for staff splitting.'

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"I got a surprise call from my mother that night and told her I thought I was dying. She called our local pediatrics on-call nurse line and was told to get me back to the hospital. I told her I had already tried and they thought I was looking for attention. My mom said she would call them. We said 'goodbye, I love you's, and hung up. I honestly thought that was last time I would talk to my mother.'

"As a lot of you know, my mother and I have a very complicated and difficult relationship, but I owe her my life. She somehow managed to get them to take me in. My lungs ended up collapsing, I ended up on life support and had to be revived. But I made it and I am alive because my mother fought for me. Some parents don't."

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Treatment program survivors will share their story in a ‘Beyond the Headlines’ special after the movie.

After the end credits roll on Cruel Instruction tonight, Lifetime will feature a Beyond the Headlines special with real-life treatment program survivors describing their experiences. “The doc will highlight the allegations of abuse in this under-regulated industry and the PTSD and anxiety that many survivors continue to live with,” the cable network says, noting that more than 50,000 teens are sent to unregulated behavior modification facilities each year.

In developing Cruel Instruction, Lifetime partnered with Breaking Code Silence, a nonprofit that “represents those who are and were incarcerated by the U.S. troubled teen industry (TTI), a network of privately-owned, powerfully punitive, and often wilderness-based therapy programs, residential treatment centers, therapeutic boarding schools, group homes, boot camps, and faith-based academies,” as its website explains.

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