The parent company for three pricey schools for troubled teens near Bonners Ferry is being sued by two former students for fraud, racketeering and battery.
The suit was filed in District Court on Tuesday. It alleges that Rocky Mountain Academy, Northwest Academy, Ascent and their California-based parent company, CEDU Educational Services Inc., grossly overcharge parents, and have ill-trained staff who verbally and physically abuse students.
Alleged abuses include one student’s arm being broken by a counselor and several students being punished by sitting on stools in the cold for as long as two days.
School officials referred questions to their attorney, David Wohlgemuth. He said he had not seen the complaint and could not comment on it.
The lawsuit claims the schools’ counselors are paid based on how long they keep students enrolled. Counselors receive bonus pay if they can persuade parents to transfer their children into other schools or programs run by the company, according to the lawsuit.
Programs can cost from $6,800 a month to $16,000 for a six-week outdoor course.
Much of the lawsuit stems from information parents and lawyers received about the school after a student riot in January 1997. Five people were injured, including students and school staff members in Bonners Ferry.
Boundary County law enforcement was called in to quell the riot. It launched an investigation of the school, but no charges were filed. The riot was not reported to Idaho health and welfare officials. But after reading about the melee in the newspaper, state Child Protective Services officials launched an investigation of Northwest Academy, a rustic outdoor program.
“It is our belief that the cause of the riot was the result of frustration by students over mistreatment by a number of staff towards these children,” said a health and welfare report. The report is included in the lawsuit.
CEDU charged former student Kevin Accomazzo’s parents $30 to drive their son to the hospital after a school counselor restrained and broke the teenager’s arm, the complaint said.
According to reports by health and welfare officials - included in the lawsuit - the counselor grabbed Accomazzo and put him in a bear hug to stop him from leaving a room. He wrestled the teen to the ground, and they both heard a “snap.”
In their report, health officials said the counselor laid on top of Accomazzo for 10 to 15 minutes before sending someone for medical help. After the teen’s arm was put in a cast, the doctor ordered him not to lift anything heavier than a pencil.
But Accomazzo was put back to work at the camp, chipping ice, shoveling snow and hauling pots of water, according to the lawsuit. His arm failed to heal properly. It had to be rebroken and a plate surgically implanted, the lawsuit said. Weeks after the surgery, Accomazzo was forced to sleep in a damp, unheated tent.
“It is our opinion that this injury should never have occurred,” the report by health and welfare officials stated. They recommended Accomazzo be pulled from the school and the counselor “should not … work with children in any capacity at CEDU.”
Accomazzo’s broken arm was not reported to state health and welfare officials as is required by law.
The school has a consultant, Rich Donavon, to make sure it complies with state requirements. Donavon, the former director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, claimed the broken arm was an accident and didn’t need to be reported.
“During the previous two years we have made it clear to the administrators of CEDU, including consultant Rich Donavon, that any suspicious injury needs to be reported,” the health and welfare report said. “Injuries such as that experienced by Kevin Accomazzo clearly should have been reported, along with the findings from a medical examination.”
The school was also chastised by health officials for making students sit on stools in the cold as punishment. Some students were allegedly placed on the stools for as long as two days. “Allegations regarding abuse and neglect by specific employees of Northwest Academy are found to be valid,” the health and welfare report said. A copy of the report was sent to state officials who license the academy.
Accomazzo and his parents also claim they were bilked for thousands of dollars. The Accomazzos paid $16,000 for a six-week outdoor program called Ascent.
In addition to tuition, the family was charged $60 to $80 a month for laundry, and $40 for their son’s ride to the dentist. A van typically took six students to Sandpoint for a dental visit, a 30-mile ride. All the students were charged $40 for the trip, according to the lawsuit.
“These charges are exorbitant,” said the lawsuit filed by local attorneys Steve Very and Todd Reed, who also is a deputy prosecutor for Boundary County. They asked a judge to bar CEDU from continuing to bill parents for “unconscionable” sums of money and sending out false billing statements.
Claims made by Stanton Lewis, another former student who filed suit, are similar to those of Accomazzo. The lawsuit alleges CEDU has breached its contract by not providing the education that was promised.
The CEDU program is one of the largest employers in Bonners Ferry. Some famous troubled teens have attended the program, including children of Barbara Walters and Roseanne Barr.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: COST Programs can cost from $6,800 a month to $16,000 for a six-week outdoor course.
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