Since 2017, police have been called to Red Rock Canyon School in St. George 72 times, often for child abuse complaints
(Jud Burkett | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) The Red Rock Canyon School advertises open positions on a banner standing in front of the facility on St. George Boulevard in St. George, Utah, Saturday, June 8, 2019.
In reaction to a riot at St. George’s Red Rock Canyon School in April, Utah authorities stepped in and demanded changes.
But that was far from the only violent incident at the school for youths with psychiatric issues. The Salt Lake Tribune conducted a review of every relevant police report since 2017, uncovering a pattern of increasing violence, often instigated by staff. Click here to read that investigative report.
The Tribune review shows that since 2017, St. George police have been called to Red Rock Canyon School a total of 72 times. In that time, 23 staffers were investigated for child abuse. Nine were charged with crimes, while another four were referred for charges but nothing was ever filed in court.
Not even six months into 2019, five staffers have been charged with child abuse and a sixth is facing drug charges. Here is a snapshot:
January 2019: ‘Throwing body shots’
A 15-year-old girl reported that staff members and students had dragged her into a bathroom out of sight of security cameras and assaulted her. Police initially did little to investigate, calling the girl “uncooperative.” But a supervisor called the officer days later, saying he had found video footage that showed two staff members, Pulemau Latu and Lealavatualua Grohse, pulling the girl by her hair into the bathroom.
“It is unknown what happened inside,” an officer wrote in the police report, “but during the incident, one of the staff exited the bathroom and allowed a student who is seen running into the room, to then enter the bathroom.”
The girl said she had been abused, by the staffers who “were throwing body shots” at her and another student who kicked her. When interviewed, the staffers told police that it was just horseplay. The dispute was reportedly over a snack the girl had taken.
Latu and Grohse have been charged with class A misdemeanor child abuse, and their cases are pending in court.
January 2019: A slap in the head
Police were called after it was reported to the Division of Child and Family Services that a boy was assaulted by a staff member after the student had pulled the staffer’s chair out from under him.
The staffer, Lausii Sewell, allegedly responded by grabbing the boy’s shirt and pushing him against the wall before slapping the boy in the head. The boy told police he had pulled the chair as a joke, and he wasn’t trying to hurt Sewell.
The staff member told police he was in a bad mood that day, but denied punching the boy or slapping him, calling the contact a “nudge” to the side of his head.
Sewell was charged with class B misdemeanor child abuse, and his case in still pending.
April 2019: Pushed into a bunk bed
Three days before the riot in late April, a staff member allegedly pushed a boy twice, who hit a wall and a bunk bed. The boy, a foster child from Oregon, told police that staffer Nathan Sorensen injured him after trying to pull him from another student’s bed where he had been sitting. The youth said Sorensen “went for his arm and throat” after the student initially broke away.
The teen said he kicked the staffer in return after he says Sorensen threatened to kill him and “f--- you up.” Sorensen told police that the youth punched him after he tried to use a restraint. He denied threatening the youth’s life, but said he did say “I will f--- you up." Sorensen was charged with class B misdemeanor child abuse, and his case is still pending.
May 2019: Shoved for defiance
Red Rock Canyon School’s compliance director alerted police on May 1 to a staffer who violated their company policy for “going hands on” with a student when it was not required. Security footage showed the staffer, Taimi Taimi, pushing a student into a plywood box. He pinned him against the box, police say, until other staffers came and intervened.
The boy told police that Taimi shoved him as he was walking to breakfast with his classmates. He said he was pushed because Taimi had reprimanded another student, telling him that if he didn’t tuck in his shirt he would lose his therapy time — and the boy had intervened and said Taimi could not take therapy from his classmate.
The student reported that before Taimi pushed him, he asked if he was really going to be restrained just for talking.
“[The youth] continued to tell [Taimi] he was just talking and he should not be going hands on with him,” a police report reads. “[Taimi] then pushed him against the plywood box and then pushed [his] head into the box, causing him to hurt his face.”
Taimi told police that he had been trying to restrain the youth for being defiant, and did not mean to hurt him. He added that he was trying to administer a restraint he had seen other staffers do — but that he had not been trained at Red Rock Canyon School on how to properly restrain the youth.
Taimi was charged with a class C misdemeanor for negligently harming a child, and his case is still pending.
May 2019: A bag of drugs on a bedroom floor
On May 14, Red Rock Canyon’s director told police that a student reported that he woke up that morning and had found a baggy of drugs on his bedroom floor. Video surveillance showed a night staff member, Victor Fatali, walk into the room to check on the kids and the baggy fell from his pants.
Fatali told police that he “got too close to the kids” and that they had put the drugs on him. A drug test later found that he had meth in his system, according to police.
Fatali, who previously was convicted of methamphetamine possession in February 2018, is now charged with class A misdemeanor drug possession and class B misdemeanor paraphernalia possession. His case is pending.
This is the second time a staffer had been accused of having meth at the school. Another staffer accidentally left a glasses case with meth in it in a staff break room in 2017, according to police.