Violence, often instigated by staff, has become common at Red Rock Canyon School in St. George for troubled children

Months before dozens of police cars raced to a St. George school for troubled youths, one of its teachers had emailed managers with a warning: The staff was losing control, and something bad would happen if things weren’t fixed.

Red Rock Canyon School didn’t have enough staff to calm disputes and teachers were quitting. Brawls among students were becoming more frequent, more than Dane Camp had ever seen during his five years working there.

Then, one April evening, dozens of students began fighting, first with one another and then with staffers. Fifty police officers responded — some outfitted with SWAT vests and AR-15s — to find students breaking glass, pulling down blinds and throwing punches.

By that time, Camp had left his job at the St. George school, though he wasn’t shocked when he heard about the riot.

“I knew it was going to happen. It wasn’t like it wasn’t obvious to all the teachers. And the staff knew,” he said in an interview. “We’ve been trying to tell corporate the whole time, and they didn’t care.”

The fallout was swift for the facility, which provides residential treatment and schooling for youths ages 12 to 18 — a mix of teens whose parents pay for them to stay there, out-of-state foster children and some who are ordered to be there by a judge. Utah authorities threatened to pull the facility’s license if more than a dozen significant changes aren’t made. Officials from two other states removed most of their foster children who had been placed there.

Red Rock Canyon’s parent company, Sequel Youth and Family Services, says it’s working to make improvements and that the recent events do not reflect their standards.

But this was far from the only time police have been called to the school.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

A review of public records paints a picture of a campus in constant and increasing turmoil, even in the years before the riot. St. George police are frequently contacted to investigate violence, often involving staffers assaulting the youths. In the past 2½ years, nine employees have been charged with child abuse for choking, pushing or punching kids in the face.

The school remains operational despite these reports — and is raking in millions of dollars each year from states like Oregon that are paying hefty per-day rates for the Utah facility to care for some of its most challenging children. One Oregon senator even questions why Utah allows Red Rock Canyon to stay in business.

The riot

The school’s nurse had just finished passing out nighttime medications April 28 when he heard screaming.

The courtyard of the school — a converted hotel lined with palm trees located on a busy road in St. George — was full of students who should have been heading to bed. Already, a fight between two boys had broken out.

Several students and staffers later told police the violence escalated after one staffer called a group of young girls “thirsty hoes,” “bitches” and “horny little girls” before ordering them back to their rooms. This upset the girls, they later told police, and they confronted the staffer.

One girl reported to police that the staffer hit several of them, and pulled her around by her hair. She admitted to officers that she found a porcelain toilet tank cover and had brought it out as a threat. The staffer reported he was hit with it.

Another girl told police that this staffer also pulled her hair and hit her, so she grabbed a rock and a chair and threw it at him.

“[The girl] said she got mad because she has been abused by her father,” a police officer wrote in a report, “so she did not want to come here and be abused by someone she did not know.”

In nearly 100 pages of police reports recently released in response to a records request, officers describe coming upon the chaotic scene: Teens fighting staffers, some resorting to violence because they became upset after watching staffers hit their peers. Other youths were fighting with one another. Some were breaking windows and pulling down blinds. On the sidewalk were trails of blood.

The phalanx of police who responded that evening handcuffed the youths, some of whom struggled with the officers. Several were “triggered” by police, staff reported to law enforcement, and one girl told an officer that the police had killed her brother.

Five students were brought to the hospital to be treated for scrapes and cuts to their heads and hands.

And though multiple students and staff told police that the staffer who had called the girls names had also assaulted them, prosecutors have not filed any criminal charges against him — and the parent company has asserted that he has been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap, however, said his office just received the case this week and is now evaluating whether the staffer should be charged. Seven of the students, though, have cases pending in juvenile court.

Utah’s Department of Human Services sent a letter to the facility in May, saying if it didn’t make significant changes, it would lose its license.

One of the biggest issues that investigators cited was inadequate staffing — one of the workers reported to police that he was caring for 15 girls alone with only one untrained weekend staffer with him. (Utah licensing rules say there should be one staff member supervising every four youths.) DHS officials also wrote in the letter that investigators had watched video footage, read incident reports and conducted interviews and discovered “numerous accounts of mistreatment, abuse, acts of violence and overall disrespect towards residents.”

Sequel, the parent company, pushed back on the state’s findings, writing in a document posted on the school’s website that while there were not enough staffers working on the night of the riot, it does not believe the fight was a result of understaffing. The company also disagreed with referring to the confrontation as a “riot.”

Mandy Moses, the chief operating officer for Sequel, said in a statement that the company is actively working to resolve the issues brought up by licensing officials. She added that since Sequel took over the school in 2016, it has helped hundreds of teens, many of whom have the potential to be dangerous to themselves and others.

But Moses acknowledged that the recent events “do not reflect the high standards we hold ourselves to as an organization.”

Adding, “We can and will do better.”

Police reports show the number of incidents and the number of criminal charges against staffers has increased in recent years, and that state licensing officials had done little until the riot took place.

‘That place should not be operating’

Many of the students who have been at Red Rock Canyon School are foster children from other states, whose agencies have been paying Sequel to care for them.

But after the riot, officials in Washington and Oregon responded by pulling their kids from the school and launching their own inquiries.

Debra Johnson, with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families, said all of her state’s youths were moved out of Utah by the end of May “because of safety concerns.”

In April, 23 Oregon youths were at the St. George school, but officials there have made an effort to move them elsewhere. As of this week, 14 remain in Utah. Oregon Child Welfare officials have told lawmakers throughout several public hearings that those at Red Rock Canyon have been the hardest to place elsewhere.

Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser has combed through hundreds of pages of St. George police reports and licensing records, and told The Salt Lake Tribune that she believes all of the foster children in her state should have been removed immediately. She noted a case in which a boy was assaulted by two different staffers in a two-day period — and he remained at Red Rock Canyon School.

“My goal is not just the Oregon kids,” she said. “All of those kids should be out of there. That place should not be operating.”

Gelser noted the number of Oregon foster children sent to the Utah facility has increased in recent years, going from none in 2016 to 40 children by 2018 — about a third of the school’s student population. This has equated to $3.6 million that Oregon officials have paid to the Utah facility since 2017.

But Gelser’s concern is that because Oregon officials have limited options, there’s little incentive for Sequel to make meaningful changes.

“What’s happened to our kids, my Oregon kids, is we don’t have any place to put them,” she said. “No matter how horrible that riot was, we left 14 kids there because we are literally a captive market.”

The Oregon senator also questioned whether Utah officials have been providing enough oversight to youth treatment centers, noting that the state is teeming with youth ranches and rehab centers that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to Utah’s economy.

But the children who are living in these places are vulnerable, she said, and are often not believed when they complain about abuse. She worries that state licensing officials are too cozy with the treatment centers and may have a financial incentive to allow problematic locations to stay open.

“I just hope the Utah Legislature and the Utah licensing agency really thinks about the vulnerability of the kids coming from other states and how much we rely on them,” Gelser said. "We have an obligation to protect each others’ kids when they are in our state.”

In the past five years, Utah officials have threatened the licenses of 10 youth rehabilitation centers. They have yanked the licenses from two places it supervises — one an adoption agency and the other an adult rehabilitation center that had an unlicensed physician prescribing drugs.

Utah Office of Licensing Director Amanda Slater said in a statement that the state is responsible to protect the health and safety of clients in licensed programs, while “valuing the autonomy” of a private business.

Slater said that the instances of abuse reported before the riot were properly addressed by Red Rock Canyon School and state officials had determined that no formal action was necessary. Licensing records show that the school had reacted to findings of abuse by firing employees — but little happened to the facility itself.

Slater said their decision to take action recently was due to “the number of violations and severity of incidents” that have taken place at Red Rock Canyon. The school will have its license in good standing again after a 90-day period, if the required changes are made.

“Formal action is a decision that is not taken lightly,” Slater said, “as it is almost always disruptive to the therapeutic environment which the program provides.”

‘Lasting repercussions’

Camp, the former teacher, said that before Sequel bought Red Rock Canyon School, his job was still challenging, but rewarding. Since the corporate takeover, staff downsizing and lack of support made the work more difficult — and dangerous.

His classroom had computers that didn’t work, broken desks and exposed wires. The air conditioning often was out, making it nearly impossible for the students to learn on hot southern Utah summer days.

He was supposed to have three trained staffers in his classroom supervising the 15 girls he was teaching, he said. But by the end of his time there, he was often the only adult in the room.

And the students there require constant supervision. Things you would normally see in a classroom, like staples, binder rings or the metal caps on erasers, have to be hidden so students can’t use them to harm themselves.

“It not the normal kind of students,” Camp said. “None of my students are straight-A students. And not only that, these students can also be dangerous — mostly to themselves, but they can be dangerous to other people.”

Police have investigated 23 instances since 2017 in which a youth has been accused of hurting another resident or a staffer. But officers are there just as frequently for reports of staffers harming the students — and that number is on the rise.

Officers investigated three instances of staff-on-youth abuse in 2017, according to police reports, and one staffer faced child abuse charges. The following year, 12 reports were investigated and three staffers charged.

Not even six months into 2019, police have investigated seven instances of staffer abuse so far, and five Red Rock Canyon School employees have been charged with child abuse.

Staffers are allowed to physically restrain students there, but Utah has rules they are supposed to follow. They are not to use force as a punishment, only putting their hands on the youth if he or she “presents imminent danger to self or others.” And experts say when force is used, it should be done rarely and for a short period of time.

But the police reports indicate that staff often restrain the youths for simply not obeying them, like not taking their shoes off or not getting out of bed on time. Security video from January showed two female staffers pulling a girl by her hair into a restroom, where the girl said she was then assaulted by them off-camera. This dispute was reportedly over a snack she had taken.

Staffers at facilities like Red Rock Canyon School often rely on physical restraints if they aren’t properly trained to de-escalate situations, said Elissa Glucksman Hyne, a senior policy analyst with the national nonprofit Children’s Rights.

It’s often argued that there’s no other option to ensure safety than to restrain youths, but Hyne said facilities that have eliminated the practice have had fewer documented injuries to students and staff. And being physically held down by staffers can cause more harm than just a bruise or broken arm, she said.

“A lot of youth that are in these facilities have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives,” Hyne said. “When you use these types of restraints or interventions, it causes another trauma or re-trauma. Not only is it the momentary instant of physical restraint, it has lasting repercussions.”

Abuse has been reported at Red Rock Canyon School even before Sequel bought the facility in 2016. The school has been forced to defend itself in a number of lawsuits, mostly surrounding staffers who are accused of physically harming or sexually abusing students. One lawsuit that has since been dismissed alleged a staffer put a young man in a headlock in 2016 and twisted his arm until it broke. Another lawsuit asserts a staffer fractured a 14-year-old boy’s arm when he was grabbed during his stay in 2012.

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

Peyton Fielding, a 20-year-old Nevada woman, told The Tribune that she attended the St. George school for more than a year in 2014 — then a 14-year-old girl whose parents were paying for her stay.

But she said that shortly after she arrived, her arm was broken by staffers who threw her to the ground after she had tried to run from her therapist’s office. She fled, she said, because she had just learned that she’d be living at the Utah facility long term, which her parents hadn’t explained to her.

Fielding said she had complained about being in pain for days and asked for medical attention, but the staff accused her of lying. She wasn’t allowed to call her parents because it was against the rules to call home in a student’s first month.

She was eventually driven to a hospital for treatment. A photo taken then shows her as a round-faced young girl, pointing to her bruised and broken arm, her tongue sticking out. Her other arm is wrapped around a stuffed animal.

Fielding went to two other youth facilities from there — finally finding a wilderness program in Richfield that helped her — but her memories of Red Rock Canyon School are marked by abuse. The staff would often bend their wrists in restraint holds, held their legs down, sometimes grabbed their mouths.

“It just didn’t seem right,” she said. “I don’t feel like my suffering was appropriate for someone who needed mental help and received abuse instead.”