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Teen-help school hit with abuse allegations

Published February 16, 2005 1:11 am

Majestic Ranch: This isn't the first time complaints have been made, but charges are unlikely to be filed
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Allegations of abuse continue to plague a northern Utah boarding school that caters to preteen and early teenage youths with "conduct and behavioral problems."

Caseworkers with Utah's Division of Child and Protective Services (CPS) and local law enforcement officials are investigating complaints of unsanitary conditions and abusive restraint practices at Majestic Ranch, a school north of Randolph. The complaints come from current and former employees who allege the school's 60-plus students are being neglected.

Last week, Rich County Sheriff Dale Stacey inspected the school, accompanied by caseworkers and health and fire department officials. He has yet to file a report with the Rich County Attorney's Office, but says he believes the allegations are mostly without merit.

"I don't foresee any charges being filed. But that's not entirely up to me," Stacey said.

But two former employees criticize the state's approach, arguing Rich County's small-town atmosphere calls for independent investigators.

"Everyone knows everyone up there. We've called the local health department before to complain and they said, 'We work with Majestic really closely and don't think there's a problem,' " said Katrina Payne, who worked as "house parent" overseeing one of the girls' dormitories for more than a year.

Payne, now a Weber State University student, says she was fired last year for calling in sick without a doctor's note.

Craig Barlow, head of the Utah Attorney General's Children's Justice Division, defended the state's strategy, saying, "We have done the raid approach and that seems to get everyone into a polarized confrontational stance, which I'm not sure is the best way to protect the kids."

Barlow said currently the state has no grounds for removing children from the school or notifying their parents, most of whom reside in other states.

Majestic Ranch is affiliated with the Worldwide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools (WWASPS), a Utah-based chain of get-tough treatment programs for teens. There are seven schools in the WWASP network, three of them in Utah.

Majestic Ranch has been investigated three times for alleged abuse. Only one ended in a criminal charge and conviction when a staffer - no longer employed there - pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.

Tammy Johnson, ranch director, said "no complaints were substantiated" with the most recent investigation.

"They toured everything. We feel really good about it," said Johnson.

After recently testifying in opposition to a bill that would give state licensing officials authority to regulate private boarding schools, Johnson said claims that children are mistreated are fabricated by students who want to go home.

"These are get-back games," Johnson said.

But Payne, 25, said one administrator is verbally abusive to the children, routinely swearing at them, calling them names and sometimes physically restraining them.

"I've seen him push kids and shove their faces in the snow," she said. In addition, Payne alleges unsanitary conditions in the kitchen and dorms are making children sick, and the windows to the dorms are nailed shut, constituting a fire code violation.

Karleen Farnsworth, 22, a former house parent who quit after two weeks protesting low pay and poor living conditions, said when she came down with diarrhea and vomiting, "staff told me, 'You need to bring your own food and water. The water is bad here.' "

Farnsworth also alleges she did not receive sufficient training.

Stacey said Majestic Ranch owner Dan Peart gave him full access to the school grounds and dorms. Investigators did not interview students, though the health department plans to send out a nurse to ask some of the female students about a rumored outbreak of a skin infection.

"There was a problem with a sewage line freezing. The windows weren't nailed shut, but can only be partially opened. But all of that is being taken care of," he said.

Stacey acknowledged knowing the owners of Majestic Ranch "for a long time," but says, "I'm still going to do my job."

Bear River Health Department inspector Nick Galloway also believes employee complaints are unfounded.

Water quality is "generally good" and though one of the school's waste water disposal systems was backed up, it's now functioning, he reported. "Living conditions appear to be adequate, with dorms which are warm, dry and in generally good condition and sanitary. The girls' unit is slightly crowded, but not uncomfortable."

Web sites that advertise Majestic tout it as a peaceful 2,000-acre working ranch where students 7 to 14 years of age are taught responsibility, discipline, self-esteem and respect for others. Students work at their own pace in small classrooms.

Johnson said while days are structured and there are rules, such as curfews and a smoking ban, students aren't on "lock-down." The school charges $3,200 a month tuition.

kstewart@sltrib.com