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U.S. Faults Mexico Over Closure of 3 Baja Schools

September 18, 2004|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. State Department plans to send a letter of protest to Mexican officials over the handling last week of the closure of three schools for troubled teenagers in Baja California, amid complaints from parents and school officials that Mexican authorities have yet to justify their actions.

More than 500 students and staff were forced to return to the United States and other countries after Mexican authorities closed the facilities in Ensenada and Rosarito Beach. The largest school, Casa by the Sea, housed about 550 boys and girls at a former hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Mexican authorities said they acted after unspecified complaints of physical and mental abuse at the schools, which tout themselves as behavior modification institutions for children involved in gangs, drugs and other dangerous activities.

But no details of the alleged abuse have been provided to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, spokeswoman Liza Davis said. She said the State Department would send a letter citing the abrupt and disorganized manner in which officials from three Mexican agencies shut down the schools.

In some cases, parents were not allowed to see their children for several hours while Mexican officials questioned them, Davis said. At one point, fights broke out among some of the students, she said.

"Our position is they have every right to ... inspect facilities just as in the U.S.," Davis said. "Our problem is largely with how it was done, because it was quite chaotic."

The other schools closed were Casa la Esperanza, with 20 students, and Genesis by the Sea, with 26 students.

Mexican officials did not return calls seeking comment. A statement released earlier this week said the schools' operations were suspended because of poor record keeping, improper licenses and poor management of prescription drugs, some of which had expired. Officials said one school had an electric perimeter fence and another had a punishment cell.

Ken Kay, a spokesman for Casa by the Sea, denied that the facility had a punishment cell or an electric fence. And he cited a Mexican media report earlier this week that said a Mexican health official had found no evidence of abuse.

"We are relieved that there is no substantiation to the abuse allegations," Kay said.

Schools for troubled teens have generated controversy in the past for their alternative teaching methods and, some say, excessive disciplinary techniques. Similar facilities have been closed in Mexico, the Czech Republic and other countries.

Several parents of children who attended Casa by the Sea said the school had no record of complaints and was straightening out teenagers' lives. They expressed concern that false accusations were marring the facility's reputation.

"I just don't want Casa to get a bad name," said Carol Rivardi, a Rancho Santa Margarita resident whose 16-year-old daughter attended the school for one year.

"My daughter had no self-esteem; now she has values and beliefs. It has totally changed her," Rivardi said.

But some applauded the closures. "I'm rejoicing," said Roderick S. Hall, a San Diego-area clinical psychologist who said several students over the years had reported psychological abuse at the school to him. "I think the [schools] play on parents' fears and then play on kids' fears to shape up, and it's not constructive in the long run."

Casa by the Sea was a last resort, according to parents who said they had run out of options.

Many parents said they selected Casa by the Sea because it was the closest facility of its kind to Southern California. They also said that the tuition -- which ranged from $2,000 to $3,500 per month -- was substantially lower than alternative schools in the United States.

Progress at the facility was based on a point system, with good behavior rewarded with privileges like movies. Misbehaving children were forced to sit alone in a room and listen to motivational tapes, parents said. One parent said the discipline went further.

Michael McNulte, a Long Beach resident, said his son told him that the most problematic children were on occasion "slammed" into a wall. McNulte said the practice didn't upset him, having been raised in strict Catholic schools in the 1960s.

"Tough love," said McNulty. "I don't think it was excessive."

Mexican officials initially said they had received complaints from four children alleging physical or mental abuse. Dozens of officials descended on the schools on the evening of Sept. 10 and interviewed students there for hours.

San Diego police officers, who interviewed 80 children after they returned to the United States, said none reported abuse.

Davis, the consulate spokeswoman, said the office regularly monitors conditions at alternative schools in Baja California. A school in Tecate was shut down two years ago, she said. Two other alternative schools are still operating in Baja California.

Casa by the Sea, she said, had generated complaints from some teenagers over the years. Children talked of pushing incidents and being forced to sit in an empty room for hours, said Davis, who added that the claims had not been substantiated.

Parents said tales of abuse were to be expected from some children who didn't want to be there in the first place and would try anything to get out.

"These charges are totally false," said Mark Wolpe, the father of a 17-year-old former student. "People must understand that some of the children going to these programs are, totally and without doubt, out of control."

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