Group Seeks Probe Into Boarding School

Group Seeks Probe Into Boarding School

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A California-based children's advocacy group is calling for a federal investigation into a northern Utah boarding school it claims mistreats students, subjecting them to numerous abuses, including restraining them face down in manure.

Based on sworn statements of four former employees, the Glendale-based Emancipation Project says the Majestic Ranch -- a boarding school for troubled children near Randolph in Rich County -- is unsanitary and unsafe for the children living there. The facility houses 55 children ages 8 to 14.

Thomas and Isabelle Zehnder, of Vancouver, Wash., distributed a report they compiled about the ranch to state lawmakers and elected officials last week. They also plan to send it to Congress and the U.S. attorney general.

The 13-page report contains allegations of abusive practices, dirty living conditions, lack of medical care and unhealthy foods. It also chastises the state Division of Child Protective Services and local authorities for not intervening.

Majestic Ranch director Tammy Johnson said the report contained "serious misrepresentations." She called the accusations "definitely a personal vendetta" by disgruntled former employees and state officials who, she claimed, want the program shut down.

"We really feel like we've been a bull's-eye target for too long," Johnson said.

The Rich County Sheriff's Office is investigating trespassing and theft allegations against former employees at Majestic's behest, Sheriff Dale Stacey said. No charges have been filed.

Utah Division of Child and Family Services caseworkers, state health and local fire and police officials toured the ranch last month to look into the complaints brought against the school. They determined that a bulk of the complaints were "not credible" but noted that there were a couple of minor fire-safety issues.

Child welfare officials said that while some of the ranch's practices weren't necessarily desirable, there were none that could be considered abusive.

"There were allegations, but we weren't able to find that any specific children were abused or neglected," said Department of Human Services spokeswoman Carol Sisco.

But Karleen Farnsworth, a former state youth corrections worker, said she saw children punished by having to stand outside on milk crates in subfreezing temperatures or forced to shovel manure with their bare hands. Farnsworth quit her job as a Majestic Ranch house parent in January after three weeks.

"I was unable to stand it any longer," she said.

Another former worker, Jared Quick, filed an affidavit stating that uncooperative children were wrestled to the ground, sometimes face first in manure.

Johnson said workers do use physical force to restrain out-of-control children as a last resort, but they can't choose the time or place it happens.

She confirmed that there was an incident where a child swinging a pitchfork at another child was restrained in a manure pile, but added that the evasive action was "certainly not malicious."

Majestic Ranch is one of eight programs affiliated with St. George-based Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, or WWASPS. Allegations of abuse and neglect have been leveled against several of its facilities over the past few years, all of which company officials have denied.

California Congressman George Miller has repeatedly called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate WWASPS and similar programs.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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