Utah-based group under fire

Legislation targets association of schools for troubled youths

By Amy Joi Bryson
Deseret Morning News

Published: Thursday, April 21 2005 9:11 a.m. MDT

A Utah-based organization affiliated with schools for troubled youths is stirring controversy in at least three states and is the target of congressional legislation unveiled Wednesday.

At issue are the persistent allegations of child abuse and claims of questionable business practices surrounding the World Wide Association of Speciality Schools (WWASPS) founded by Robert Lichfield of La Verkin, Washington County.

Lichfield is one of three directors on the board of WWASPS, which officially claims affiliation with seven schools, including facilities in New York, South Carolina, Montana, Utah and Jamaica.

The organization uses behavior modification tactics to curb rebellious behavior in kids and often establishes schools in rural, out-of-the-way areas to deter notions of running away. Monthly tuition is several thousand dollars, on top of admission fees.

The allegations of abuse and questions about the facilities' credentials — all of which WWASPS' president Ken Kay denies or says are overblown — have sparked investigations in numerous states, prompted closures of some facilities and led Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., Wednesday to call for federal legislation invoking more oversight.

It was Miller, the senior Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee, who demanded in 2003 that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft investigate WWASPS.

The request, made again last year, never gained much traction, so Miller is now pushing for passage of the "End Institutional Abuse Against Children Act," which among other things, would establish federal civil and criminal penalties for abuse against children in residential treatment programs and expand federal regulatory authority to overseas programs operated by U.S. companies.

Miller's legislation is just but one of many recent actions involving WWASPS around the country.

In New York, the organization's Academy at Ivy Ridge had its accreditation suspended last week in the wake of a New York Attorney General's Office investigation that is probing the school's licensing and educational credentials.

A subpoena was issued in February gathering numerous documents for an ongoing probe — an investigation Kay characterizes as a "lack of communication" between Ivy Ridge and state officials.

Whatever the case, Ivy Ridge's accreditation was suspended by the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools in Boise and the school put a disclaimer on its Web site, listing its lack of accreditation and detailing its negotiations with state educational officials to offer sanctioned diplomas.

The disclaimer comes despite the school's existence since 2002, when it opened just outside of Ogdenburg near the Canadian border and since then has promoted two forms of diplomas as an academic offering.

Kay said the problem is unfortunate because the students' education is being sacrificed simply due to "some bureaucratic jousting going on."

The Northwest Association, the regional accrediting agency for Utah and several other Western states, suspended Ivy Ridge's accreditation until the issue is clarified, Kay said.

"They ran gun-shy because they got a threat from the attorney general in New York."

For its part, the AG's office is remaining mum about the extent of the probe, but officials believe several procedural violations may come into play, including the school's failure to properly operate with a certificate of approval issued by the state Department of Education.

The paperwork problems come on top of complaints by parents who have claimed their children are abused.

Kay said claims frequently surface because of the nature of the schools' population. "They make up stories, they fabricate; you are dealing with a difficult part of society."

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