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Allegations of abuse at prospective charter school splits Utah’s top school boards

First Published      Last Updated Feb 17 2016 05:53 pm

Troubled-youths center » West Ridge Academy wants to become a charter school, but former students’ allegations divide officials who have say over move.

Josh Graham remembers his first day at West Ridge Academy in December 1998, when the treatment center and private school for troubled youths was known as the Utah Boys Ranch.

His parents didn't tell him where he was going, or why. They dropped him off in the lobby, and he was taken into a room to meet with a member of the school faculty.

Graham refused to speak, and he claims the staff member responded by wrestling him to the ground and placing chair legs on his wrists to pin him down.

Graham was 11 years old.

"I was scared, and I was angry and I was alone," he said.

Another West Ridge alumnus, Maria Olsen, said her first day began in February 2012, with two men entering her bedroom, startling her awake and carrying her out of her home.

Over the next six months, she was made to sleep on floors, go days without speaking and was limited to reading only textbooks and scriptures.

She said desks and chairs were thrown at students, and children as young as 9 years old were pressed facedown on the ground with the knees of adult staffers in their backs.

"I had arrived at an unregulated prison," she said.

Graham and Olsen shared those stories and others with members of the state school board earlier this month in anticipation of a vote to approve the latest transformation of the Utah Boys Ranch.

Rebranded as West Ridge Academy in 2005, the school is applying to become a charter school named Eagle Summit Academy, which would receive public funding on a per-student basis. Children from West Ridge's West Jordan residential treatment center would be enrolled at the charter, which would also recruit more troubled youths from the surrounding area.

Eagle Summit's application was approved by a 5-1 vote of the state Charter School Board. But, in a rare move, the State Board of Education reversed the charter board's recommendation and denied the application to investigate the accusations of physical and sexual abuse and financial insolvency.

When members of the state school board asked whether the charter board had heard Graham's and Olsen's testimonies, charter board Vice Chairwoman Kristin Elinkowski suggested the stories were the embellishments of troubled youths.

"I think when you're dealing with the things they're dealing with in a residential treatment center," she said, "you're going to get allegations like this."

A fresh start • Graham said Elinkowski's comment is a typical response to stories of abuse at residential treatment centers.

"When you cry wolf and when you do cry abuse, there's no one who will look into it," Graham said. "It's presumed that because we were kids that have problems that this stuff didn't happen or that we're exaggerating."

Lawsuits filed against West Ridge have been settled out of court, and Graham said he knows of at least 18 police reports filed by students and their families. But he believes no criminal investigation has been launched.

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