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Allegations of abuse at prospective charter school splits Utah's top school boards

Published February 16, 2016 4:40 pm

Troubled-youths center • West Ridge Academy wants to become a charter school, but former students' allegations divide officials who have say over move.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Josh Graham remembers his first day at West Ridge Academy in December 1998, when the treatment center and private school for troubled youths was known as the Utah Boys Ranch.

His parents didn't tell him where he was going, or why. They dropped him off in the lobby, and he was taken into a room to meet with a member of the school faculty.

Graham refused to speak, and he claims the staff member responded by wrestling him to the ground and placing chair legs on his wrists to pin him down.



Graham was 11 years old.

"I was scared, and I was angry and I was alone," he said.

Another West Ridge alumnus, Maria Olsen, said her first day began in February 2012, with two men entering her bedroom, startling her awake and carrying her out of her home.

Over the next six months, she was made to sleep on floors, go days without speaking and was limited to reading only textbooks and scriptures.

She said desks and chairs were thrown at students, and children as young as 9 years old were pressed facedown on the ground with the knees of adult staffers in their backs.

"I had arrived at an unregulated prison," she said.

Graham and Olsen shared those stories and others with members of the state school board earlier this month in anticipation of a vote to approve the latest transformation of the Utah Boys Ranch.

Rebranded as West Ridge Academy in 2005, the school is applying to become a charter school named Eagle Summit Academy, which would receive public funding on a per-student basis. Children from West Ridge's West Jordan residential treatment center would be enrolled at the charter, which would also recruit more troubled youths from the surrounding area.

Eagle Summit's application was approved by a 5-1 vote of the state Charter School Board. But, in a rare move, the State Board of Education reversed the charter board's recommendation and denied the application to investigate the accusations of physical and sexual abuse and financial insolvency.

When members of the state school board asked whether the charter board had heard Graham's and Olsen's testimonies, charter board Vice Chairwoman Kristin Elinkowski suggested the stories were the embellishments of troubled youths.

"I think when you're dealing with the things they're dealing with in a residential treatment center," she said, "you're going to get allegations like this."

A fresh start • Graham said Elinkowski's comment is a typical response to stories of abuse at residential treatment centers.

"When you cry wolf and when you do cry abuse, there's no one who will look into it," Graham said. "It's presumed that because we were kids that have problems that this stuff didn't happen or that we're exaggerating."

Lawsuits filed against West Ridge have been settled out of court, and Graham said he knows of at least 18 police reports filed by students and their families. But he believes no criminal investigation has been launched.

A records request by The Salt Lake Tribune is pending with the West Jordan Police Department.

Graham said he attended West Ridge full time for the bulk of a year, then sporadically for attitude "tuneups" until he graduated from East Hollywood High School in 2006.

He said he struggled with anger management as a child, running away from home and getting into fights. But his flaws didn't justify being sent to a treatment center, where, he says, children were forced to look at the corpse of a classmate who took his own life.

"I'm not saying I was a sunshine kid," Graham said. "I definitely had my issues."

West Ridge representatives did not rebut Olsen's and Graham's claims during the state Charter School Board meeting in January.

Instead, their presentation focused on how Eagle Summit Academy would employ a new, empathetic approach to discipline that tries to address the emotional roots of bad behavior.

Howard Headlee, chairman of the charter board, said the structure of the proposed charter school is critical in that it would be disconnected from the function and programs of the treatment center.

"The allegations were compelling, were heart-wrenching, and really brilliantly presented by these very impressive young people," he said. "But, really, they're related to an entirely separate entity."

During the charter board meeting, Headlee responded to Graham and Olsen by saying that the "silver lining" of approving Eagle Summit's application would be additional oversight and scrutiny.

The allegations of abuse are against individual staff members, Headlee said, and it is not the state charter board's function to dictate who can and can't be employed by a new charter.

"If they were to hire someone that would put the kids in danger, they'd be in serious trouble with us," Headlee said. "We told them as much."

"Violent abuse is not the product of bad apples at West Ridge," Olsen said. "Violent abuse is the program."

And Olsen said there's enough connective tissue between the school and the treatment center to set off alarms.

Eagle Summit's governing board would include former members of the West Ridge advisory council, and the director of academics at West Ridge, Paul Keene, is slated to be the director of the proposed charter school.

"These are the same people who very clearly failed [to prevent], or participated in the abuse of children themselves," Olsen said. "And now they're asking for money."

Eagle Summit's charter application also mentions replicating the West Ridge model, with the switch to a charter seen as a way to boost access to the school's services.

About 60 students attend the private school, but the Eagle Summit charter application anticipates an enrollment of 300 students in grades seven through 12.

Representatives of Eagle Summit Academy declined to be interviewed for this story.

In a prepared statement, the Eagle Summit Academy board of directors said the school's charter application speaks for itself and should be reviewed on its merits.

"Because Eagle Summit Academy is and will be a an entirely separate corporate entity, Eagle Summit Academy cannot answer to any of the complaints raised about West Ridge Academy."

A statement from West Ridge Academy said the treatment center and school have remained fully licensed and accredited despite the allegations.

The alleged victims are blaming West Ridge for the problems that existed before, and led to, their treatment, the statement said.

"Though saddened by the attack," it said, "we are not surprised."

Questioning authority • Terryl Warner is a member of the state Board of Education, but she was present as a nonvoting member when the charter board discussed the Eagle Summit application.

Warner works as a victim advocate and said she "will always regret not stopping that meeting" after Graham and Olsen shared their experiences.

"I'm used to hearing really horrific allegations, and those were pretty bad," Warner said. "If there's any truth to the matter, then we probably need to look at it."

She said charter board members may have been caught off guard by the nature of the allegations and not known how to proceed.

But she added that claims of abuse against children deserve a closer look and shouldn't be dismissed because of a victim's background.

"When kids make allegations, they need to be vetted. That's the bottom line," Warner said. "The majority of times, there's some truth to what a victim says."

The state Board of Education voted unanimously to deny Eagle Summit's application, with several members saying time was needed to investigate the allegations of abuse and the structure of the relationship between the school and treatment center.

While the state board has before asked the charter board to take a second look at some charter applications, February's vote was the first time the higher board rejected the lower board's recommendations.

The split vote is the latest sign of a potential rift developing between the two boards.

Members of the charter board are appointed by the governor, but last year, members of the state Board of Education issued a recommendation that they be empowered to seat the charter board and select its chairman.

The Board of Education also voted to endorse a bill that would give it greater oversight into private, third-party educational service providers, which commonly contract with charter schools.

"I know there are people on the state school board who are anxious to criticize the charter school board," Headlee said. "We hear their criticism loud and clear."

Warner said any division between the two groups is felt by individuals and isn't coming from the board itself.

"I've heard through the grapevine that there is tension," Warner said, "but I don't feel that."

And David Thomas, vice chairman of the Board of Education, said that while the boards occasionally disagree, he relies on the charter board to vet applicants and issue recommendations.

"Sometimes those differences come out," Thomas said, "but that's part of the process."

Support system • Eagle Summit's charter application was denied without prejudice, meaning the school's representatives can come back to the state school board next month to make their case for approval.

Olsen said she's committed to speaking out against the school, whether it becomes a public charter or continues to operate as a private treatment center.

"I don't feel good knowing this could happen to anyone else," Olsen said. "Even if they don't ever bring the charter [application] back, West Ridge Academy still exists."

Before she was enrolled as a teenager, Olsen said, she was showing signs of depression and self-harm.

But she believes the primary reason she was sent away to West Ridge was the discomfort that her sexual orientation caused her parents, who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I don't want to pretend I was in a perfect place," Olsen said. "I probably did need some sort of help. I think what I really needed were parents who were not convinced I was a scourge on their family."

Now an adult, Olsen said talking about her experience at West Ridge with her parents can be difficult, but she can understand why her family was initially skeptical about the treatment she received.

"I don't blame my parents for believing people who they had been told to trust with me," Olsen said.

Graham, also raised in a Mormon household, said his parents were referred to West Ridge by a member of their LDS congregation.

"A good portion of [West Ridge students] are Mormon kids," Graham said.

In 2011, then-Presiding Bishop H. David Burton told the Deseret News that the LDS Church "has been and continues to be a longtime supporter of the outstanding programs at this academy. ... West Ridge has made such a difference in the lives of so many young people and I have seen that the effects are long lasting."

When Graham asked his parents years later how they afforded the tuition — roughly $3,000 a month at the time — they responded that they paid what they could and the remainder was covered through church assistance.

Graham suggested that by converting to a charter school, West Ridge is trying to pull a "quick one" by transferring a costly and problematic program onto the state's budget.

"School is not therapy," Graham said. "The state has no business funding a private entity."

bwood@sltrib.com

Twitter: @bjaminwood

 

 

 

 

 

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