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Alec Metzger attended West Ridge Academy from 2012 to 2014 and says the West Jordan treatment center and private school for troubled youths set him on a track for success.

"If it wasn't for West Ridge, I wouldn't be the person I am," he said Thursday. "I wouldn't be the man I am today."

And Kelvin Findlay, whose son enrolled at West Ridge Academy last year, said the program offers the chance for troubled youths to move forward with their lives.

"From my perspective, we had a tremendously positive experience with West Ridge," Findlay said. "Within two or three weeks, [my son] was feeling confident that he was there for a good reason."

Findlay and Metzger shared their experiences with a committee of the state school board during a debate over a proposed charter school that would operate in conjunction with West Ridge Academy.

But the meeting also included testimony from Josh Graham, a former West Ridge student who claims he and other students were physically abused by staff members while living at the treatment center.

Since raising alarms about the school's intention to become a charter school, a move that would be funded on a per-student basis with taxpayer funding, Graham said he has been contacted by dozens of former West Ridge students whose experiences of abuse and violence match his own.

"I am not denying that this program does good for some," he said. "Many of us received treatment for post traumatic stress disorder because of the physical abuse we suffered."

The application to become a charter school, which would be named Eagle Summit Academy, was denied last month by the state school board.

Board members expressed a desire for more investigation into the school, leaving open the opportunity for further review and reconsideration.

On Thursday, a panel of school board members saw a 60-page report that raised several concerns about the financial solvency and administration of the West Ridge treatment center, which currently includes a private school.

While the report, which was prepared by Utah State Office of Education staff, could not corroborate the allegations of physical abuse against students, investigators were critical of the school's proposed financial structure and identified several instances in which lawsuits were settled out of court.

In one of those lawsuits, former faculty member John Rhodes claimed he was improperly fired in retaliation for reporting unwanted pelvic thrusts by Paul Keene, who is slated to be the director of the proposed charter school.

"Mr. Keene stated that he and Mr. Rhodes had a history of goofing off and wrestling," the school board report states, "and there was no pelvic thrusting other than any that may have occurred while otherwise wrestling."

Keene was also identified by Graham and other former students as overseeing or perpetuating a culture of violent reactions against students for otherwise minimal disciplinary issues.

"I can't tell you how upset I am to be called a child abuser time and time again tonight when it's not true," Keene said. "I am not an evil person."

The committee failed to reach a majority vote on either recommending approval of the charter school or forwarding the school's application to the full board with no recommendation. Without a committee vote, it is unclear what action will be taken regarding the school when the full board meets Friday.

Board member Terryl Warner said an anonymous person sent her binder of police reports that included several cases of students who were sexual offenders targeting other students.

And the West Jordan Police Department, responding to a records request by The Salt Lake Tribune, identified several police reports involving violence among students at West Ridge, but only two cases of accusations against adult members of the staff.

Of those cases, one was in 2009 and resulted from a student who ran away from the treatment center and reported being touched inappropriately by a staff member. The case was closed after investigative leads were exhausted.

The second police report was filed in January and was not released by the police department because an investigation is ongoing.

Warner said she supported the concept of a school for trauma-sensitive youths, but she indicated she would not be able to support the charter school until assurances were made that students would be protected from the residents of the treatment center.

"I have not seen a safety plan on how we are going to protect those children who are going to come into the school," she said.

Amy Whittaker, a member of the West Ridge staff who is listed on its website as clinical director, said the treatment center's policies were changed in 2007 to no longer allow teens who were charged with sexual crimes.

"We do not any longer take anyone that has sex offenses or that has had any sex-offense charges," she said.

But David Thomas, vice-chairman of the state school board, said allowing West Ridge to transition into a charter school would bring about greater oversight from state agencies.

He also said settlement of court cases does not necessarily suggest culpability.

"Settlement of lawsuits does not substantiate anything," he said. "I know of lots of reasons entities settle lawsuits, most of which have nothing to do with liability."

Twitter: @bjaminwood

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