After a riot, increasing violence and now sex abuse allegations, Red Rock Canyon school will close

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Red Rock Canyon School in St. George. Tuesday, July 9, 2019.

St. George • A school for troubled youth has decided to close after it faced intense scrutiny following a riot and recent revelations about the number of staffers accused of assaulting students.

Sequel Youth and Family Services, the company that owns Red Rock Canyon School in St. George, confirmed Tuesday evening that it will shutter its campus within the next 60 days.

“Over the last few months, in working with the Utah Department of Human Services, we have recognized that we have not consistently delivered on our mission,” the company said in a statement. “As a result, we’re taking this action proactively to do what’s in the best interest of our students and staff, while we address the identified deficiencies and make the program consistent with our standards for the future.”

Sequel owns three other facilities in the state that differ from Red Rock. Lava Heights Academy focuses on art therapy, Falcon Ridge Ranch is a girls-only school that includes therapy with horses and Mount Pleasant Academy is a small center that provides treatment to boys struggling with sexual issues.

Red Rock Canyon School 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.

Red Rock also has been frequently visited by police investigating staffers for child abuse, drugs and most recently sex crimes, according to a Salt Lake Tribune investigation. Utah regulators haven’t been heavy-handed with the company through most of those instances, at least until the riot broke out in April.

Utah authorities then threatened to pull Red Rock’s license if more than a dozen changes weren’t made. The school has also been the subject of several legislative hearings in Oregon, and officials there and in Washington have removed most of their foster children who had been placed there, citing safety concerns.

Sequel stressed that the decision to give up Red Rock Canyon School’s license was voluntary, and that the company plans to transfer its students to other places to receive similar care.

Amanda Slater, Utah’s licensing director, said in a statement Tuesday evening that state officials are supportive of Sequel’s decision to give up its license for Red Rock and believe it is “appropriate action in the interest of the health and safety of youth residents and staff.”

“Our primary focus is to oversee and support the safe relocation of these youth who have complex behavioral needs,” she said. “We will immediately begin the process working with Red Rock to see the safe transition of the 49 youth currently residing at the school to other facilities, home states or their caregivers with as little disruption in their treatment as possible.”

Eleven of those students are foster children from Oregon, according to an Oregon Department of Human Services email sent to senators there. Four will be taken back to their home state, while state officials there are working to find other placements that will “enable them to continue their treatment plan in a way that meets their needs with the least amount of disruption.”

Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser last month questioned why Utah allowed Red Rock to remain open in light of the reports of abuse, and on Tuesday, she applauded the closure. She worries, though, that some of the foster kids in Oregon may be shuffled to another Sequel facility in a different state that faces similar issues.

“I want all our kids back in Oregon,” she told The Tribune. “I understand kids may need to go to highly specialized facilities. These are not highly specialized facilities. I don’t have a problem with a specialized facility that is high quality, trauma-informed and nonviolent. But the primary staffing requirement there is to have a heartbeat and be able to restrain a kid.”

Even in the past few weeks, new reports of sexual abuse have surfaced, with two police departments in two different states conducting investigations.

Both St. George police and officers in Porterville, Calif., are investigating whether Red Rock staffers sexually abused students, officials in both departments have confirmed.

California officials recently confirmed they have been investigating the possibility that a Red Rock staffer fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl who had been at the school.

Porterville police reached out to a St. George officer in April, according to a search warrant affidavit, and asked the Utah officer to gather DNA from the 28-year-old staffer for a paternity test.

The girl reported to police in her home state that she had met the man at Red Rock and began an “online relationship” with him last January after she left the school. He would travel to California monthly, according to the affidavit, and take the then-14-year-old girl to hotel rooms where they would have sex.

Hotel records showed the staffer checking into a Motel 6 in Porterville during that time, police say. The last time he checked into the hotel was July 2018 — and the girl gave birth about nine months later.

Officials with the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office confirmed that they are reviewing the case for potential criminal charges, and expect to wrap up that review by mid-August.

Meanwhile, back in Utah, St. George police officials are conducting a separate investigation into a sex assault involving a Red Rock Canyon School employee. Police here have remained tight-lipped on any specifics beyond confirming it was not related to Porterville case.

Since 2017, St. George police have been called to Red Rock Canyon School a total of 72 times, according to hundreds of pages of recently released police reports. In that time, 24 staffers were investigated for child abuse.

Prosecutors in late June charged a staffer with child abuse, alleging he punched a 17-year-old girl in the face and pulled her around by her hair during the April 28 brawl.

He is the 10th staffer in the past 2½ years to be charged with child abuse, with accusations ranging from choking, pushing or punching kids in the face.

And two employees since 2017 have faced drug charges, accused of accidentally leaving methamphetamine in areas of the school.

One employee was accused in court papers of leaving meth in a staff break room in 2017, while another allegedly dropped a baggie of meth in a student dorm room in May. The staffer who was charged most recently has a history of drug convictions, according to court records.