The identification of disengaged early school leavers as young people ‘at risk’ can lead to a deficit-based framing of how educational institutions respond to them. A rural secondary school in Victoria, Australia established an alternative education programme to cater for local disengaged young people. A critical ethnographic study was conducted over 12 months, comprising observation of the programme, and involving interviews with 12 key personnel. Findings revealed the ways in which young people were positioned within the secondary school, alternative programme and community contributed to a response within the alternative programme which was based upon a therapeutic ethos, focusing on perceived social and emotional deficits. In the light of findings, it is argued that there is a need to construct alternative spaces that work to not only re-engage them with learning, but also to counter the stigma many of these young people face in their schooling and in the local community.