A Utah company that ran a network of domestic and international schools for troubled teens is being sued by more than 350 former students who claim they were denied food and medical care, lived in filth and suffered extreme physical and sexual abuse.
"Such abuses were inflicted on some children for several years," the lawsuit states. "In many instances, the abuse could be accurately described as torture of children."
Among the abuses detailed in the lawsuit include being exposed to extreme hot or cold temperatures for extended periods; being forced to eat raw or rotten foods or to eat their own vomit; being bound by the hands and feet; and being placed in isolation, including being locked inside small boxes or cages.
Some students also allege they were emotionally and verbally abused, were forced to wear unwashed clothing for weeks, were prevented from using bathrooms, were deprived of sleep and were deprived of any religious affiliations other than Mormonism.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of more than 350 former students and 150 of their parents in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court last week. The students are from 38 states, England and Canada and attended the residential school programs between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools and its three principals, Robert B. Lichfield of Toquerville, and Brent M. Facer and Ken Kay, both of St. George.
Also named are a network of nearly 50 other affiliated businesses and individuals, which the lawsuit claims were also controlled by the organization's principals through either family relationships or written management agreements.
No hearings have been set in the case, and it was not immediately clear whether any of the 54 defendants were represented by attorneys.
The lawsuit alleges fraud, breach of contract and abuse by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools and its affiliates and seeks a jury and unspecified damages. The suit renews claims in a 2006 lawsuit filed in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court that was dismissed by a judge for jurisdictional reasons in August.
The attorneys who represented the schools, Lichfield, Facer and Kay in that lawsuit did not immediately respond to telephone and email messages Thursday.
In court papers, attorneys for the students say World Wide has operated more than 20 schools in seven states and in Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, Samoa and the Czech Republic, although the exact number and how many remain in operation is unclear.
Many of the schools were open for only short periods because of their failure to comply with licensing and regulatory laws, because of abuse allegations, and because the organization's "principals drained excessive funds off the top," court papers allege.
New schools were continually created to take in students from schools that were abruptly shut down. But the directors and staff at the news schools were often "the same incompetent and untrained" people who ran the schools that had been closed.
The students' attorneys say World Wide charged families thousands in monthly tuition, but then failed to provide adequate education or therapeutic treatment programs.
Windle Turley, a Dallas-based attorney representing the families, says state and local authorities in some places have moved to shut down or investigate the schools. In New York, the attorney general's office conducted a criminal investigation of a school near the U.S.-Canada border. Authorities in Costa Rica and Mexico also have conducted probes, Turley said.
The New York case resulted in a 2005 settlement and the school was ordered to partially reimburse tuition costs to parents and stop advertising that it offered educational diplomas because it was not recognized by the state as an accredited school, the Deseret News of Salt Lake City has reported.
State attorneys also said the school, Ivy Ridge, was behind one of the largest education fraud cases in New York's history.
The newspaper also reports that Mexican officials raided and shut down a school called Casa by the Sea in 2004.
In June, an individual student who claims he attended Casa by the Sea filed a separate federal lawsuit against World Wide and its owners.
Carl Brown Austin, 24, of Spokane, claims he spent nearly two years in the Ensenada, Mexico, school and was a "virtual prisoner" in programs that meted out primitive punishment for hours on end.
When Austin's lawsuit was filed, Facer told The Associated Press he had served on World Wide's board, but that the organization had shut down because there was no longer a need for its programs.
Asked why former students might bring such accusations, Facer said children brought to such schools have a history of misrepresenting the truth.
"That's why these kids need help," Facer said. "They lie to their parents, lie to their superiors, teachers, people who maybe they would consider an authoritative type of figure. That's not uncommon."