The lesson was brutal. For the simple crime of flirting, a young girl was forced to stand all night long in a kiddie pool brimming with ice water. If she staggered or appeared on the verge of passing out, the boarding school’s program director would douse her with even more frigid water. Worse yet, the girl’s companions, including a teenager named Sarah Ciko, were told to refill the pool with ice whenever the program director deemed it necessary. The kids watched this girl shiver for hours, following the adult’s every order.
“Everyone likes to think they would do the right thing,” says Ciko, now a 35-year-old mother with a teen of her own. “But no kid should be put in a situation like that. We could’ve said no, but then we would’ve gotten the ice, too. Or worse.”
That story is a small glimpse of life at Excel Academy, a now-closed boarding school in Conroe, roughly 45 minutes north of Houston, which was opened in 1997. Children who dabbled in drugs, truancy or any number of offenses associated with being a so-called “troubled teen” were sent to Excel Academy to correct those behaviors. According to many of its former students, the school was a world of painful abuse.
Ciko never told her parents of the abuse, and other students' parents weren't aware, either. Even if kids spoke up, the school stayed open for over 10 years, finally closing in 2008.
Students clad in orange jumpsuits were physically assaulted, made to drink classmates’ spit from cups, forced to do calisthenics in sewage and often taken on tours of the local jail. A few months before the school's closing, one young student was attacked and humiliated by incarcerated people. For the latter incident, a sheriff’s deputy named Monte Morast ultimately pled guilty to official oppression. Morast moonlighted at Excel Academy, and news reports at the time say he allowed inmates to force a young student to take off his clothes while on tour at the jail. Later that year, Excel Academy closed its doors for good.
For the last 13 years, stories of the school’s abuses of power have been mostly confined to a private Facebook group. But now, Dallas radio personality and Excel alum TC Fleming has co-created a podcast shedding more light on this sordid boarding school.
“I think the average person doesn’t know schools like this exist,” Fleming says, discussing part of his motivation for the show. “And if you do, you probably have a shallow understanding of it, like, ‘Oh I bet that was tough.’ I want people to know that the laws currently allow adults to do things to kids that would shock you.”
The podcast, Life Skills, is co-hosted by Fleming and fellow Excel alum Alex Stevens. As kids, their time at the school overlapped by roughly two years in the early 2000s. They reconnected in mid-2019 and talked about a podcast that would recap and review the first season of True Detective. Gradually, that idea morphed into a podcast about their experiences at Excel, though their True Detective fandom did inspire the show’s cover art.
Life Skills gets its name from a class Excel students were forced to take that was supposed to help them learn valuable lessons for their lives ahead. Instead, it was often an exercise in cruelty. Now, as Stevens puts it, he and Fleming are “taking that name back.”
“We’ve been talking about our Excel experiences for over a year now,” Stevens says. “We’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about trauma, and as you’ll hear, that’s one of the main themes of the podcast.”
Stevens is spot-on. While the show is ostensibly about these two guys’ lives at a nefarious boarding school, it’s also about two old friends reuniting and hashing out their own traumatic experiences. Fleming, who has honed his podcasting chops with the terrific Loserville, has a radio-ready timbre and an innate, accessible storytelling style. Stevens often serves as Fleming’s foil, presenting different sides of arguments whenever necessary and fostering some fun banter.
“The podcast does a good job of matching what our normal conversations are like,” Fleming says. “Alex and I have a lot of similarities. We’re slightly argumentative, exploratory, constantly probing the other person’s positions.”
And they don’t shy away from tangents; in their first episode, it takes them over 30 minutes to dive into their subject matter. That may seem like improper decorum for a pair of podcast hosts, but it succeeds in one key way: making the inaccessible accessible. The show is tackling topics such as abuse, morality, law and the long-term impact of childhood trauma, and both hosts share deeply personal stories that are often hard to hear. Plus, most episodes flirt with or exceed a two-hour timestamp. Yet you’ll likely want to keep listening, mostly because Fleming and Stevens do a good job of making you feel like you are part of the conversation.
In an early episode, Fleming shares the details of how he arrived at the boarding school. To Stevens, his co-host’s openness was inspiring.
“TC was pretty brave and pretty raw about the few days before he went to Excel,” he says. “It was a great way to set the stage, and he did a great job of letting the listener in on the world that we are a part of. I’m glad that he was able to do that.”
Stevens admits there are still things that he is not ready to talk about, at least not yet.
“I feel like I'm still holding back a good amount,” he says. “But I think I’ll share them eventually. I’ll get there.”
In many ways, the show has already been a triumph. It’s given both men space to reflect on painful memories, and the response from fellow Excel alums has been positive.
“They’re happy people are out there talking about it,” Stevens says. “It does matter to see your experience validated like that. Once we started getting messages like that, I was like, OK, we’re gonna keep doing it.”
Meanwhile, Excel alums like Ciko have started sharing stories in their own formats. In addition to the Facebook group, an Instagram page has popped up warning parents that some of the former leaders of Excel are still trying to work with children.
“I got off so much luckier than other people, and I don’t know why. ” Ciko says “But people need to listen to these stories, and people need to know that schools like Excel are still out there.”
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