U.S. scrubbed plan to protect exchange students

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JACKSON, Miss. — Despite dozens of allegations of neglect and sexual abuse over the years, the U.S. State Department has scrapped a plan to require FBI-based fingerprint searches for people hosting foreign high school exchange students, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.

The federal agency in recent years considered but dropped a plan to require FBI background checks similar to what’s used by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts because it wasn’t “feasible,” according to the State Department documents.

By not doing so, the State Department has sent the wrong message, especially at a time when cases of mistreatment and sexual abuse continue to surface, advocates said.

The Exchange Visitor Program brings close to 30,000 high school students to the United States each year. Foreign students live with a host family for a year and attend U.S. schools. It’s supposed to be a learning experience for the students, but over the years, dozens of students have been abused, according to State Department records, advocates and court documents.

The agency received 43 allegations of sexual abuse since the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday.

“From the State Department’s point of view and the Secretary of State’s point of view, even one child abused under these programs is one child too many. That is why we’ve undertaken a number of reforms to strengthen the program,” Toner said in an email.

In recent years, the agency has adopted several rules designed to safeguard students in the high school program, including requiring all sponsors to photograph the exterior of the house, the kitchen and student’s bedroom. Host families also must provide outside character references — previously, family members and sponsors could be such references.

Yet the State Department failed to adopt other critical rules at the time, including a plan for a pilot program with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that would have used FBI fingerprint checks that are performed by youth organizations that include the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. It would have ensured a more in-depth, nationwide criminal background check.

Danielle Grijalalva, executive director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, said she has found dozens of cases of sexual abuse over the years and forwarded the complaints to the State Department. Yet the agency has done little to investigate them, she said.

“The State Department is watching exchange agencies like the Catholic Church watched its (pedophile) priests,” she said.

Advocates place blame on the way the agency relies on designated sponsors — companies that facilitate the program by arranging places for the students to live — to perform background checks on host families.

Last year, the State Department took steps to sever its relationship with one sponsor after the company placed a student “with a host family whose criminal background check revealed a murder conviction,” according to agency memos. One document from last year said a review by the State Department found that 15 of its 39 “largest fee-charging” sponsors were in “regulatory noncompliance,” though it didn’t say what rules were violated.

The agency asked the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of State for an independent review of its Youth Programs Division, and the OIG determined in September 2011 “that the Bureau had fully and satisfactorily responded to the recommendations and closed out the review,” Toner said.

“The Department has made significant reforms and continues to pursue new ways in which we can safeguard international student exchange participants,” he said.

Critics say more must be done.

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