Student exchange sponsor hounded by complaints

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JACKSON, Miss. — An organization suspended from bringing foreign exchange students to the U.S. was hounded in recent years by allegations of mismanagement, with complaints ranging from sexual abuse by host fathers to urging a host family to lie about company mistakes, an Associated Press review shows.

San Diego-based Pacific Intercultural Exchange, or PIE, is appealing this year’s suspension from its role as one of the State Department’s sponsors for the high school exchange program. The company has said it’s being treated unfairly.

The State Department won’t say exactly why PIE was suspended, but AP has reviewed emails, court documents and school board records that show the company has been accused of mismanagement involving dozens of teenagers in recent years.

PIE is part of a network of organizations that brings close to 30,000 high school students to the U.S. annually in a program overseen by the State Department. The program has come under increasing scrutiny, with critics saying that sponsors are more concerned about profits than the participants. The State Department says the safety of the students is its main concern and that it’s working to make the program better. It wouldn’t comment on PIE’s appeal.

Yet emails among State Department officials reviewed by the AP, along with court documents, show a pattern of alleged oversights that one of the officials decried as “lax business practices.” Two of the most serious cases involve PIE host fathers convicted of sexually abusing exchange students, with one spawning a lawsuit that accused the sponsor organization of failing to do an adequate background check.

“They’re getting greedy. They’re getting sloppy. And there’s no room for greed or sloppiness when you’re dealing with children,” said Danielle Grijalva, director of the nonprofit Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students.

The State Department has adopted several rules designed to safeguard students over the years, including requiring background checks, but it scrapped plans for a pilot program that would have required more thorough FBI fingerprint checks like those used by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Critics say the more thorough background checks would help identify potential host families who may abuse the students.

In one of the abuse cases, 30-year-old PIE host father Shernon James was convicted of molesting a 15-year-old Ukrainian student in 2009 at a hotel in Kissimee, Fla. James had previously been charged with, but acquitted of, possessing child pornography.

Another host father for PIE, 52-year-old Craig Steven Ley, of Beaverton, Ore., pleaded guilty in 2010 to sexually abusing a German boy. PIE didn’t do an adequate background check to find out that Ley had a felony record for using another exchange student in a bogus insurance claim, according to a lawsuit filed over the case.

Another problem for PIE has been accepting more students into the program than there are host families available at the time, Grijalva said.

PIE’s president, John Doty, told his staff in a 2006 email that the company narrowly dodged sanctions for cancelling “a number” of students who signed up to participate in 2005. The email also said Doty went to Washington D.C. in 2006 to meet with State Department officials because he was again faced with canceling participants, this time 113 Korean students.

PIE and other sponsors charge the students’ families thousands of dollars to arrange for them to live in American households and go to school high school. The U.S. government also gives grants to students from some countries.

A number of other sponsors have been accused of violations. An agency review last year found that 15 of the 39 largest such organizations were in “regulatory noncompliance,” according to State Department documents obtained by AP.

Many violations are handled with a reprimand and corrective plan, but it’s unusual for a company as big as PIE to be suspended. The suspension affected a more than 455 students from 18 countries for this school year.

Officials in Louisiana were so alarmed by the living conditions of PIE students that in 2010 the Vermillion Parish School Board banned the company from placing students in the district. A teacher took in one of the students because the teen was being mistreated by the host family, according to Superintendent Randy Schexnayder.

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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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