Violence, sex abuse and mistreatment: Utah officials threaten to pull the license of this St. George school for troubled youth

Weeks after a large brawl broke out at a St. George school for troubled youth, state officials are saying Red Rock Canyon School needs to make more than a dozen significant changes — or risk losing its license.

Staffing problems have led to violence and sexual misconduct and have left staffers and residents feeling unsafe, according to a scathing letter from the Department of Human Services dated May 9.

The latest incident was an April 28 riot involving at least a dozen students, a fight that ended with several injuries. But DHS officials say the school did not report the brawl until days later — just one of nine violations outlined in the letter.

Other violations were specific to the fight, including a finding that a staffer who was involved in a “physical altercation” with a youth allowed another student to apply a chokehold until the youth dropped to his knees and lost consciousness. Interviews revealed “resident-on-resident restraint” is common.

Licensing investigators also noted that staffers made comments during the riot that made the situation worse.

"During the riot, and on several other occasions, staff made humiliating and degrading comments to residents of the program," the letter reads, "which caused behaviors to escalate dangerously in an already tense situation."

Seven youth are now facing charges in juvenile court, Washington County Brock Belnap said Friday. Five of those are facing a felony-level charge for rioting.

The school’s website describes the facility as a “psychiatric residential treatment center" for people ages 12 to 18. The website describes multiple types of therapies and a staff that includes counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists. A phone message left for staff was not returned Friday.

DHS officials said in the letter that investigators watched video footage, read incident reports and conducted interviews and discovered "numerous accounts of mistreatment, abuse, acts of violence and overall disrespect toward residents."

The school doesn’t have enough staffers, investigators found, and those on the job reported they are working 16-hour days, seven days a week.

Officials also found messy grounds and items like broken tiles strewn about the buildings that could be used as weapons. Investigators also spotted aerosol cans with harmful chemicals that youth were huffing to get high.

Licensing officials ordered the school to comply with 16 conditions, including reducing how many youth are at the facility and retraining their staff in de-escalation skills and behavior management. Several repairs must be done to the building, and the grounds need to be cleaned.

The school must also update its "staffing ratios policy" and identify how it will meet that ratio. The letter must also be posted at the school, on its website and on its social media pages. There's no trace of the notice online as of Friday afternoon.

The Department of Human Services letter was first made public Tuesday — but not in Utah.

The report was given to Oregon officials, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting, as that state’s Child Welfare system has come under scrutiny for its practice of sending foster children to other states with little oversight. There are currently 23 Oregon youth at the St. George school, according to officials there.

The DHS letter was published on Oregon’s legislative website. Utah officials confirmed it had taken the action Friday, and posted the letter on their website later that day.

Red Rock Canyon School has been forced to defend itself in a number of lawsuits in recent years, mostly surrounding staffers who have physically harmed or sexually abused students. One lawsuit that has since been dismissed claimed a staffer put a young man in a headlock in 2016 and twisted his arm until it broke. Another lawsuit claims a staffer fractured a 14-year-old boy’s arm when he was grabbed during his stay in 2012.

Two lawsuits were filed in 2018 accusing the school of not protecting two youths from a staffer who sexually abused them.

One suit alleges the employee, a then-27-year-old man, engaged in sexual activity with a 16-year-old boy in 2012. The second suit alleges the same staffer sexually abused a 13-year-old boy that same year. That youth also says he was sexually abused 15 times by another student, who threatened him in order to receive sexual favors.

Both lawsuits claim school policy dictated that staff could not be alone with students; however, employees were aware that the perpetrator was spending time alone with students.

The school denied it was at fault in court filings, saying they had no reason to believe the staffer was a danger to students. Those two lawsuits are still pending.

That employee later pleaded guilty to three charges of forcible sexual abuse, and spent 210 days in jail. He was recently charged in St. George for failing to register as a sex offender. There is a warrant for his arrest.