2009 Jul 16: State Department punishes exchange student company as criminal probe widens

The Times Tribune | BY SARAH HOFIUS HALL (STAFF WRITER) | Published: July 16, 2009

The organization at the center of neglect allegations concerning foreign exchange students in Scranton is poorly run and violated at least a dozen regulations, the U.S. Department of State has concluded.

In light of the alleged neglect of up to a dozen students placed in the region, the Department of State is penalizing the California-based Aspect Foundation. The department will limit the amount of student visas Aspect can receive in 2009-10 by 15 percent, leading to a potential $540,000 loss of revenue.

The penalties and additional changes in State Department policies will have national implications across the foreign exchange student industry, as more checks are created to ensure student safety.

Meanwhile, a Lackawanna County grand jury is continuing to consider whether criminal charges are warranted, and its investigation has expanded beyond just the actions of Edna Burgette, the local coordinator who placed students in Scranton homes.

Aspect Foundation is also a focus of the grand jury, which started hearing the case in May. The district attorney’s office has been obtaining documents and other records that may lead to charges against the organization, District Attorney Andy Jarbola said.

«That’s the time-consuming process,» Mr. Jarbola said.

Twelve area foreign exchange students, who paid Aspect to place them with area families, have reported arriving in Scranton and not having a host family secured, then living in filthy homes, some of which were later condemned. Students say they were shuffled from home to home, including living in one with a man who had been convicted of drug-related offenses. At least one required medical attention for lack of adequate food and drink.

One student had been so deprived of food he cried when offered pizza by county detectives, Mr. Jarbola said Wednesday.

Regulations violated

Along with the criminal probe by the county district attorney’s office, the U.S. Office of Inspector General has launched an investigation.

Depending on the outcome of the case, penalties imposed by the Department of State may become more severe, including Aspect being forbidden from bringing foreign students to the U.S.

Aspect «is a financially troubled corporation operating with a largely untrained and unsupervised field staff,» according to the Department of State. «Underlying this weak organizational structure appears to be a corporate culture that does not grasp the complexity of the current international high school exchange environment.»

In a letter sent to Aspect, the department outlined 12 regulations violated by Aspect, including «failing to ensure that a number of host families were ‘capable of providing a comfortable and nurturing home environment’ » and failing to check references or perform background checks. Aspect also was cited for bringing notoriety and disrepute to the department, as outlined by quotes from The Times-Tribune stories that were included in the letter.

In addition to the 15 percent reduction in visas for the 2009-10 school year – the largest penalty allowed without due process – Aspect has been mandated to implement a corrective action plan, which the Department of State is reviewing. The foundation’s 12-page plan calls for an «Exchange Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities» and mandatory monthly check-ins with students.

An 800-number hot line also has been established by the department so exchange students may call the department directly to report concerns, rather than go through their local coordinators or agencies.

The Office of Inspector General is conducting an internal inspection of department protocol, and an external management audit that would allow the department greater control has been proposed.

«We need a look at our own internal processes, why we did not have oversight in place that could have caught this,» Miller Crouch, acting assistant secretary of state for the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said Wednesday.

‘Willing to work’

The Aspect Foundation, which has accepted the 15 percent sanction to give the organization «the opportunity to make staffing changes and to ensure our program’s integrity,» is willing to work with the department to correct any problems, Karen Walsh, a spokeswoman for Aspect, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.

Aspect, which company officials say has an «excellent track record» of 25 years, «fully acknowledges that what happened in Scranton was deplorable and in complete violation of our own strict standards and those of the Department of State’s Exchange Visitor Program.»

Aspect’s executive director, Vivian Fearen, was unavailable for an interview, Ms. Walsh said.

Numerous attempts to speak with Mrs. Burgette, who was fired after Aspect learned of the allegations, have been unsuccessful. A cell phone number for Mrs. Burgette has been disconnected.

Mr. Jarbola declined to say when the grand jury would conclude its investigation and possibly recommend charges.

Although the students have returned to their home countries, they are willing to come back to testify at a trial or may provide testimony via the Internet or by video, he said.

«Here these students believed they were coming to the greatest country in the world,» Mr. Jarbola added. «For them to be treated that way, it’s certainly criminal.»

Contact the writer: shofius@timesshamrock.com Timeline

  • May: Allegations surface that foreign exchange students were neglected by local host families. County grand jury convenes.
  • June: U.S. Sen. Bob Casey vows to work with the U.S. Department of State to correct flaws in foreign exchange industry.
  • Now: Grand jury probe expands to Aspect Foundation; Department of State penalizes Aspect.

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