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Exchange Program Gets Sanction

Foreign students placed through La Jolla firm say their dream of a year in America differed from the harsh reality.

May 12, 2003|Beth Silver | Special to The Times

SAN DIEGO — Mary Vattanasiriporn had a glamorous vision of America in mind when she dreamed of the year she would spend here as a high school exchange student.

Instead, the 16-year-old says, she found herself sharing a home with another exchange student and six children in a filthy, crowded house with exposed wiring and insulation bursting from the walls.

As Vattanasiriporn would soon learn, those were the least of the problems facing her and two other students in the American Intercultural Student Exchange program.

In one case, a student was placed with a 61-year-old single man in Riverside who molested the boy. The man, David Goodhead, was sentenced last week to five months in prison after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor sexual abuse charge.

One host father was arrested for alleged drug possession, and the student complained he was given a bedroom filled with fire ants.

Vattanasiriporn said one of the children in her host family stole from her. None of them said they were given enough to eat.

Last month, the State Department sanctioned the La Jolla-based company that brought the students to America. It said the company violated federal regulations by placing more than one student in a home without State Department permission, poorly supervised the students' living conditions and failed to provide its employees with adequate training. The program lost its accreditation with a national student exchange trade group this month, and may lose its license to place students in California.

Company officials strongly denied the students' accusations. Laurel O'Rourke, a spokeswoman, attributed the problems of the last year to a few fussy students with culture shock and some paperwork mix-ups. She said those snafus have been cleared up and new procedures are in place to ensure they don't happen again.

Moreover, she said, she investigated the students' complaints and could find no merit to them, but she refused to discuss specifics.

"I've checked everything out, and it's downright untrue," O'Rourke said. "Outsiders got involved. The situations in all of those cases were being handled by the program."

The boy who was molested was placed with another family in California. O'Rourke said she checks on him regularly. Goodhead, who had hosted seven or eight teens through the program, will not be allowed to do so again, O'Rourke said.

Another teen, Denis Sladkov, left the program and returned to his home in Bonn, Germany, after the exchange program failed to find him another home.

"It was just like you're paying money for having problems. It was really five months of terrible time," the 18-year-old said in an interview from his home. Sladkov said his parents paid about $6,000 to enroll him in the program. Vattanasiriporn's parents paid $7,000.

The students' problems came to light after the exchange students shared their stories with fellow classmates at a Serra Mesa high school. One 16-year-old told her mother, a lawyer. She contacted the State Department in January.

Sally Arguilez Smith, the lawyer, said she believes the program's problems are more widespread than the company will acknowledge. She said she has been in contact with four more students who have told her of poor living arrangements similar to the others' complaints.

The company has been operating since 1981 and has placed thousands of students in homes across the country.

"If they fail to correct their problems, we'll have to examine whether to impose more sanctions or whether to close their program," said Stanley Colvin, director of the State Department's exchange coordination and designation office.

Of the 115 high school exchange programs around the country that the State Department monitors, American Intercultural Student Exchange is the only one the department reprimanded this year. Because of the State Department's investigation, the California attorney general's office could take the program off its list of programs approved to run high school exchanges in the state, spokeswoman Christina Clem said.

The Council of Standards for International Educational Travel removed AISE from its list of accredited programs. High schools consult a guide the council publishes every year to determine whether to place a program's students in their schools. Without a positive designation from the council, most schools will refuse AISE's students, said Colvin and the council's executive director, John Hishmeh.

O'Rourke, of the exchange program, said the company will be able to operate without the designation and can reapply for it next year.

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