Three schools in Baja California that specialize in behavior modification for troubled American teens were raided and ordered to close last week, according to the Mexican government.
Immigration violations and reports of abusive practices toward students triggered the raids, said Raul Zarate, a spokesman for the National Migration Institute in Mexico.
Zarate said that four students at Casa by the Sea, the largest of the schools, may have been physically and emotionally abused. He did not provide specifics. Casa by the Sea has about 530 students.
The three schools are located in or near Ensenada. The other two facilities are Casa la Esperanza, with 20 students, and Genesis by the Sea, with 26 students.
Most of the students are believed to be from the United States, but some are from other nations, Zarate said.
Officials at the three schools could not be reached.
Steve Pike, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, would not comment on why Mexican authorities closed the facilities Friday. He said officials from the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana were at the schools Saturday to ensure that "repatriation is done properly and appropriately."
The State Department's website warns that it has, "at various times, received complaints about nutrition, housing, education, health issues and methods of punishment used at some facilities" that use behavior modification techniques.
Jarrod Bell of Chula Vista said that officials at Casa by the Sea phoned him Friday at 7 p.m. and told him that the school was being shuttered.
"They said, 'You have 72 hours to pick up your kid or she will be put in an orphanage or homeless shelter,' " Bell said.
He and his 18-year-old daughter were satisfied with the school, he said. After he arrived at the school, his daughter was not allowed to leave until being interviewed by Mexican immigration officials, he said.
"We're trying to understand why the Mexican government would close" the programs "with no warning," said Ken Kay, president of the World Wide Assn. of Specialty Programs and Schools, a trade organization that counts the schools in Mexico among its members.
In recent years, schools have been shut down in Mexico and the Czech Republic. Another was raided by police in Costa Rica after some students fled the facility. California officials also shut down a privately run school for wayward girls near San Diego in 1991.
"Some kids go through these facilities and change their behavior," said Shelby Earnshaw, the director of International Survivors Action Committee, a Bealeton, Va., group that advocates on behalf of youths in privately run rehabilitation schools.
"I feel like there's a significant amount of child abuse, sometimes sexual abuse, definitely in some cases brainwashing activity," Earnshaw added.
"My concern with them is that the majority of them choose states or nations where licensing rules are lax or there is no oversight -- or oversight is minimal," he said.
Times staff writers Cara Mia DiMassa and Richard Marosi contributed to this report.