Gehrke: Sure, Utah is pro-business, but is that what regulators should focus on when school kids are getting punched in the face?

Robert Gehrke

The situation finally exploded in April when a brawl erupted at Red Rock Canyon School involving dozens of students and staff.

In all, 50 police officers responded, some in SWAT vests and armed with AR-15s. Kids were cuffed and some were injured. Seven youths and one staffer were criminally charged.

The mayhem had seemingly been building for months, the culmination of a string of altercations and violence, often inflicted by staff on teens at the St. George rehabilitation facility, other times resident-to-resident.

The kids at Red Rock range in age from 12 to 18 and are sent there — some by parents, some by out-of-state foster systems, some by judges — to get psychiatric treatment and schooling.

They were also getting smacked around, shoved, punched and abused, according to a hundred pages of police reports obtained by my colleague Jessica Miller.

In one instance, two female staffers dragged a girl by her hair into the women’s bathroom where cameras would not capture the beating they then delivered. The origin of the assault was a dispute over who ate a snack.

In another instance, a staffer let one resident put a boy in a chokehold until he lost consciousness.

Ten employees at the St. George school have been criminally charged for violence against youth in their care in the past 2½ years.

The school also failed to meet the state’s required staff-to-patient ratios, in some cases having just one adult overseeing an entire group of young people.

The conditions, naturally, have been met with immediate action. The state has pulled dozens of children out of the school’s care and there have been legislative hearings looking into the mistreatment.

When I say “the state,” I don’t mean the state of Utah, of course. The states I’m talking about are Oregon and Washington.

Oregon quickly sent a team of investigators to the center and has since been moving children in the state’s care to other schools. It has also had legislative hearings on the matter. Washington, likewise, has pulled all of its youth out of Red Rock.

“My goal is not just the Oregon kids,” said Oregon Sen. Sara Gesler, who has investigated and held hearings on the school. “All of those kids should be out of there. That place should not be operating.”

But it is.

Utah regulators sent a sternly worded letter to Red Rock’s owners, giving them three months to clean up their act or risk losing their license.

Utah’s licensing director said in a statement that the state needs to protect youths in these types of programs while “valuing the autonomy” of a private business.

And what business doesn’t value a little autonomy when it comes to smacking kids around?

Utah lawmakers, meantime, weren’t even aware of the riot or the school’s checkered past. Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, who is co-chairman of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee, said Wednesday he is looking into the matter.

That is a starting point, but it’s not nearly enough. Utah has had a history of hands-off regulation of rehab centers and troubled teen schools going back two decades. Back in the mid-2000s, wilderness treatment programs in the state came under scrutiny after five youths died in their care and four others died in residential treatment programs.

Utah typically prides itself on a regulation-free business environment and as a result, we end up with roughly the same number of Ponzi schemes per capita as the next three states combined.

But in the case of Red Rock, it’s about more than someone losing his savings. It’s a question of kids being abused and whether state regulators have the tools, the resources and the commitment to stop it. It’s a question we deserve to have answered.

It shouldn’t take officials in Oregon and Washington to delve into this issue and uncover problems. Utah has a duty to these children — particularly those who are wards of the state or sent there by judges — to do whatever is necessary to ensure their safety, Red Rock’s business “autonomy” be damned.