Students speak out against treatment at Red Rock Canyon School; parent company responds to investigation

In this file photo, law enforcement officers respond to an incident at Red Rock Canyon School, St. George, Utah, April 28, 2019 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Following reports of an incident of widespread fighting at the end of April at Red Rock Canyon School, the youth treatment facility located on St. George Boulevard, several former students are speaking out on the treatment they say they received at the center.

Bystanders watch as law enforcement officers respond to a riot at Red Rock Canyon School, St. George, Utah, April 28, 2019 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

Utah state investigators previously announced they are looking into claims of sexual assault, violence and neglect after a letter posted to the Utah legislative website from the Utah Department of Human Services outlined nine violations and observations of “numerous accounts of mistreatment, abuse, acts of violence and overall disrespect toward residents.”

Read more: Utah investigates allegations of abuse, violence at Red Rock Canyon School

While multiple attempts by St. George News to get comment from Red Rock Canyon School have gone unanswered, Sequel Youth and Family Services, the parent company of the school, responded to the investigation with a letter addressing each of the violations that was posted on the Red Rock Canyon School website.

However, former students of Red Rock Canyon School have reached out to St. George News saying they are now coming forward with their stories and banding together online with the hope of enacting actual change. One student said this has allowed them to create a support system the school was supposed to provide. St. George News has agreed to provide anonymity to those who claim they were affected.

One mother, identified here as “F.M.”, said she is looking to the law for help after learning about the treatment of two of her daughters while attending Red Rock Canyon School. Following the publication of the article on the state investigation, F.M. said her daughters, S.D. and B.D., told her they were subject to some of the alleged mistreatment outlined in the investigation letter. 

“She broke down, and she was sobbing,” F.M. said of one of her daughters. “I could barely understand her, and I had to keep telling her ‘just breathe.’

F.M. said the next step was to obtain a written account of what happened so she could go to the school and the police. B.D. wrote and sent a letter on May 26 to her mother, recounting her alleged sexual assault by a male employee while she was in residential isolation. 

F.M. said she first read the letter on June 2 and contacted the family liaison at Red Rock.

“In all honesty, I didn’t know what to do or how to handle it,” F.M. said, adding that the family liaison told F.M. to contact the director of clinical services, Chad Graff.

F.M. said Graff asked for a copy of the letter and that he would investigate but that “he came across as very nonchalant about it.” She then reached out to police, outlining everything her daughter said and Graff’s response. St. George News has confirmed that St. George Police Sgt. Choli Ence is now investigating the case, which is considered ongoing.

F.M. said she believes other students will start to speak out due to the recent discoveries and investigations.

“Nobody else was looking out to protect my daughter, and I sent her there for help,” F.M. said. “I didn’t send her there to be abused in any way, shape or form.”

E.O., another former student, told St. George News she also thought she was going to get help at Red Rock Canyon School. She thought the treatment facility was going to change her for the better and offer her the support she didn’t feel she had at home, but instead of a compassionate and safe environment, she said she was judged unfairly and was the subject of gossip and other social scorn by staff and other students for wanting to get help.

F.M.’s daughter S.D. said that after the initial investigation was announced, she felt like she could go to someone with her story because she might be believed, as opposed to people automatically questioning her because of the behavior that resulted in her being sent to Red Rock in the first place. E.O. agreed with the sentiment.

“When we say something, they tell us we are lying and just seeking attention because that’s why we were sent there,” she said.

More than just judgment and gossip, S.D. said she was verbally abused by the staff and physically assaulted by students while staff were present.

She recounted one instance during a fight in her unit where she was attacked from behind, saying the staff did nothing to assist.

“I don’t know if the fight was ever reported,” she said. “I was never asked if I wanted to report it. I was never asked if I wanted to press charges, and my mom was never told.”

The state investigation seems to corroborate these stories, citing “video footage, incident reports and interviews conducted with residents.” In response to this, Sequel Youth and Family Services stated their program does not condone such behavior.

“We immediately review and address incidents when they occur through additional training and coaching as well as employee disciplinary actions including up to termination of employee,” the letter states, continuing to say that they are “actively involved in culture change initiatives including the hiring of a new Group Living Director and revised training programs.” St. George News was unable to get specific details on previous incidents or policy changes.

In another incident reflective of specified violations, S.D. said at one point a “riot” broke out in her unit, and she physically restrained another student because there was only one staff member for 20 female students. She said a male employee came in and told her to allow him to take over the restraint, asking S.D. to walk into the other room and to never to tell anyone she had restrained another student.

The state investigators mention the staffing ratio concerns in several of the listed violations. However, one violations specifically said “residents have been permitted to physically restrain other residents.”

Sequel said the school does not allow students to engage in disciplinary actions against other students, “including physical restraints,” adding that “internal weekly camera reviews of each shift have not indicated any incidents of students restraining each other in the past.”

In response to the investigators’ concerns that Red Rock Canyon School has not met the proper staffing ratio of one staff member for every four clients, Sequel responded by stating that three of the residential units were not properly staffed due to employee callouts on the evening of April 28, but that on every night since, the school has met the proper staffing ratio.

S.D. said she knew from the beginning that Red Rock Canyon School was not where she needed to be. Upon entering the facility, she was placed on suicide watch and said the employee responsible for watching her at the time said, “Don’t worry, if you succeed, you won’t be the first, and you probably won’t be the last.”

She said she never talked back and that she “faked the program” because she wanted to get out and go home.

E.O. said she did the same thing, and that’s the only reason she graduated the first time. E.O. was sent back to the program; however, she said she was kicked out the second time after she “got together” with one of the staff members. E.O. is now pregnant with a child she says is the staff member’s.

S.D. said she understands that treatment centers are necessary to help people like her, but she hopes that her story and stories like hers will spread awareness of the “horrible abuse” of power that happens within some facilities. She said treatment facilities should include additional training for staff so they are prepared to help with the mental trauma or illnesses of the adolescents in the facility and better background checks need to be required.

S.D. said what people are truly not understanding is that they are putting at-risk youth in rooms with strangers who have little to no training. She wants people to understand the methods Red Rock Canyon School uses is affecting the students.

F.M. said she wants to advocate for kids who have remained silent and for the parents who may not know what their kids have been through. Most of all, F.M. said she wants Red Rock to know there are parents who want answers.

“I’m not that parent that’s just going to wait for something to happen,” she said. “I’m going to make something happen; they’re going to address this.”

In addition to current investigations, Red Rock Canyon School has also been the subject of two lawsuits claiming the school allowed a now-registered sex offender to work with and assault clients. The school argued that it did not believe the employee was a danger to residents when he worked at the treatment facility. A 2008 lawsuit outlined similar practices.

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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