Sage Christensen, The Loved One

In 2002, Amherst principal Stephen Myers is accused of making sexual comments to a student, and loses custody of his adopted son. Nine years later, a man named JP Vernazzaro is killed on a Beverly playground. Are the events connected by an awful secret?

In 1977, Stephen Myers showed up at the door of a woman in Mountain View, California. She was a single mom raising two boys and a girl, and her older son had been getting into trouble at his high school. Myers, then a 32-year-old administrator at a local middle school, told the woman that he had a lot of experience working with troubled kids and could provide a strong male role model for both boys. He seemed heaven-sent. A year later, when Myers made a 1,000-mile road trip to a teachers’ conference in Albuquerque, the woman sent her younger son, Jon, along with him.

Myers often talked about the satisfaction he got from helping kids who were growing up without a father. He understood what they were going through. He’d been born in Colorado, and according to what he would later tell a friend, he grew up without a father. Myers had gone on to earn a sociology degree from the University of Colorado in 1967, and got his career off to a promising start with teaching positions in California and Indonesia, but he would later say that he’d never overcome his sense of lost childhood or his yearning for a strong male role model.

In 1972 Myers founded the Global Youth Academy in northern California as a summer program for students ages 11 to 18. The academy, which he later renamed Traveling School International, involved Myers leading a collection of misfits and outsiders on month-long summer bicycle tours of the Pacific Northwest. The goal was to emphasize personal growth and development, and Myers later expanded the program, taking pupils to foreign countries without their parents.

Myers’s education techniques were considered unusual but forward-looking at the time. His style was rooted in his earlier involvement in something called Erhard Seminars Training, or EST, which was part of the 1970s human potential movement. Created by the author Werner Erhard, EST held that people are responsible for their own happiness and success. Students were called names and barred from using the bathroom for long stretches, all as a way of stripping them down in order to build them back up. Critics charged that EST could have harmful effects on some people, especially the emotionally unstable, and could lead to psychotic breakdowns.

Former students and staffers recall that Myers’s summer program included events like “Body Awareness Day,” in which students were encouraged to strip down to their underwear as a strategy for confronting and accepting their bodies. Myers would don a tight yellow Speedo. He also led discussions on homosexuality, telling the students that, with their eyes closed, it didn’t matter whether it was a boy or girl who was touching them because it all felt good. Myers liked to boast that his students would reveal to him stories of sexual abuse, rape, and secret abortions. His alternative methods were lauded in the press, with the Los Angeles Times quoting students who credited the program with helping to build their self-esteem. In 1984 the city of Santa Cruz incorporated the program into its public school system (eventually discontinuing it six years later because of curriculum concerns and liability issues), and Myers operated his program privately for more than 25 years, until 1999, when he was unable to secure enough funding to keep it going.

Shortly after the Traveling School disbanded, Myers took a job as principal of a charter school in Denver and adopted Sajan, who came to be known as Sage. In 2001 they moved to the western Massachusetts town of Amherst, where Myers had taken a job as principal of Amherst Regional High School. Sage began attending school and calling Myers “Dad.” He learned to speak English by watching television, and had his own bed in his own room.

Whereas the principal Myers was replacing had a reputation among pupils as a taskmaster, Myers preferred a students-first approach. He was quickly embraced by the sons and daughters of the university professors who populated Amherst, a liberal town with a progressive school. But the calm didn’t last.