Staff accused of abuse at US schools

  • Court charges: Tuakimoana Leota is alleged to have watched youngsters play the “choking game”

    Court charges: Tuakimoana Leota is alleged to have watched youngsters play the “choking game”

  • Residential treatment: Oxbow Academy institution in Mount Pleasant, Utah

    Residential treatment: Oxbow Academy institution in Mount Pleasant, Utah

  • Residential treatment: Oxbow Academy institution in Mount Pleasant, Utah

    Residential treatment: Oxbow Academy institution in Mount Pleasant, Utah

Bermudian children are being sent to schools in the United States where staff have been accused of serious misconduct, including an institution that sacked an employee two weeks ago after it was alleged he allowed teenage boys to choke one another until they lost consciousness.

Vulnerable youngsters in the care of the Bermuda Government have gone to schools and treatment centres in at least nine different US states since 2010, including far-flung Arizona, Idaho and Utah.

Some, but not all, of the schools are commercial operations and have little federal oversight or regulation.

American legislators have tried without success to pass laws in Congress to bring them under tighter control.

Some schools where children from Bermuda have been sent have settled lawsuits over allegations of child abuse and several have been closed down by the authorities.

Others have had staff members sacked and charged in court for violent or sexual offences against children.

Today, The Royal Gazette puts some overseas institutions used by Bermuda under the spotlight as part of its Who Cares? investigation.

The most recent known allegation involving a school where a Bermudian child is a pupil was made against a staff member at Oxbow Academy, a residential treatment institution in Mount Pleasant, Utah, for teens with sexual behaviour problems.

Tuakimoana Leota, 20, was sacked after an incident at the school on November 22.

He was charged on November 26 with two counts of third-degree felony child abuse and is expected to appear in court again on January 8.

Prosecutors alleged Leota watched as several youngsters choked each other until they lost consciousness as part of a game called “Cloud 9” or the “choking game”.

The allegations were reported in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Bermuda’s Department of Child and Family Services confirmed a child from the island was at Oxbow Academy.

A spokeswoman for the DCFS said the youngster, who is at Oxbow Academy West, was last visited by DCFS staff on November 20 — two days before the alleged choking incident at Oxbow Academy East.

The spokeswoman added that “no allegations of child mistreatment or abuse” had been reported to the department and that the DCFS completed a review of standards at the school in May.

Stephen Schultz, the spokesman for Oxbow, said: “The students involved in the incident are safe, being cared for, emotionally attended to and continuing on with their very sensitive and clinically complicated treatment.

“The families have all been involved and updated throughout this process and are supportive of Oxbow and our mission with their sons.”

He added: “It is important to note that the employee was immediately terminated due to negligence in following well-established supervision protocols.”

The incident at Oxbow followed the death last month of a teenage Bermudian girl at another Utah school.

The 16-year-old died at West Ridge Academy, a non-profit institution in West Jordan, on November 14, which sparked an investigation by police and other agencies.

A spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health’s Licensing Office said yesterday: “We are unable to provide any details about an active investigation, but are working closely with law enforcement and any other investigating agencies.”

West Ridge, called the Utah Boys Ranch until it rebranded in 2005, was the subject in 2016 of serious allegations made by former pupils Maria Olsen and Josh Graham.

Ms Olsen alleged to the Salt Lake Tribune that West Ridge was an “unregulated prison” where desks and chairs were thrown at pupils and children as young as 9 were pressed face down on the ground with the knees of adult employees on their backs.

Mr Graham claimed that on his first day there, aged 11, he refused to speak and a staff member wrestled him to the floor and put chair legs on his wrists to pin him down.

He also alleged children were forced to look at the corpse of a classmate who took his own life.

The pair’s accusations led to a Utah State Board of Education reversal of a recommendation by another board to let West Ridge open a charter school.

The Tribune said school board staff investigated the claims, including lawsuits against the treatment centre, which had been settled out of court, but could not substantiate them.

Former pupil Eric Norwood launched legal action against the school in 2012, and gave detailed descriptions of being assaulted in front of other youngsters.

He also alleged he suffered multiple incidents of sex abuse from a staff member between about 2002 and 2006.

Statistics from West Jordan Police Department showed officers were called to West Ridge 155 times from 2014 to November this year.

A total of 58 calls were for runaways and 32 were listed as assaults.

Janet Farnsworth, the executive director of West Ridge, said: “The official investigation of the recent passing of this Bermudian student is ongoing. We continue to work closely with investigators from multiple agencies in order to assist with that process.

“We have been advised by counsel to not give interviews so as not to interfere with that ongoing investigation.

“Additionally, we recognise that some of the details of this incident are in the public domain from other sources, but privacy laws still prevent us from talking about this or any other student.”

She said the allegations made by Ms Olsen and Mr Graham were all unsubstantiated after investigations and Mr Norwood’s lawsuit was resolved in a confidential settlement.

The incidents at the two Utah schools came hard on the heels of revelations this year about the serious mistreatment of children at Glen Mills Schools, a reform school in Pennsylvania, where Bermudian youngsters were sent for more than 35 years until 2017.

Many of the American pupils at Glen Mills, which was shut in April and is now trying to reopen under new leadership, went there as part of a court sentence imposed after a criminal conviction.

But Bermudian children never convicted of a crime and without any legal representation were also sent to Glen Mills — and are still being sent to other reform schools — as part of the DCFS’s “psychoeducational programme”.

The island’s Family Court allows children to go to overseas institutions at the department’s request when social workers say they have “exhausted” all other options.

Two Bermudian former pupils at Glen Mills earlier detailed the mistreatment they had suffered and a good Samaritan who helped a third boy said he told her he was “held down and beaten” by another pupil.

The DCFS failed to provide the number of Bermudian youngsters sent to Glen Mills or if any of them reported abuse or mistreatment to island social workers after press queries and a public access to information request.

The Pati request is now the subject of an Information Commissioner’s Office review.

Kim Wilson, the health minister, told Parliament in March that all children in the psychoeducational programme are assessed for psychiatric and medical problems at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute at University of Utah Health.

Utah — about 2,500 miles away — is one of the farthest US states from Bermuda.

The Royal Gazette investigation found that children from the island who are assessed at UNI often go on to long-term residential care at other centres in Utah.

Family members said the distance made visits difficult and expensive and a lack of racial diversity at schools in the Mormon state meant Bermudian children had found themselves the only black pupils in an institution thousands of miles from home.

The DCFS said in November 2018 that its policy included vetting overseas treatment facilities and that the therapeutic facilities it used were accredited by the US-based Joint Commission National Quality Approval Organisation and inspected every year by the DCFS’s assistant director, Kennette Robinson, and its psychoeducational co-ordinator, Komlah Foggo-Wilson.

A spokeswoman added that the DCFS was responsible for ensuring the schools met regulations set by the US-based Council on Accreditation Standards.

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Published Dec 10, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Dec 10, 2019 at 9:19 am)

Staff accused of abuse at US schools

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