LITTLE ROCK – An attorney for a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that places foreign students in Arkansas high schools told lawmakers Tuesday he had no problem with the state having some oversight of firms like his, including a registration program.
At the request of Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, legislative committees met to consider whether the state should oversee placement of foreign exchange students after Madison fielded complaints last year that some of the students were being placed with families ill-equipped to take care of them.
“I have no problem with a registering,” said Jeffrey Allen, attorney and board member of Education First Foundation of Foreign Study, told a joint meeting of the Senate Children and Youth Committee and the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs.
Companies that place foreign exchange students with U.S. families are regulated by the U.S. State Department. California requires all companies active there to register with the California attorney general’s office, while Minnesota and Washington require the companies to register, but with some other state agency. Arkansas has no registration requirement.
When the Legislative Council approved Madison’s study proposal in December, the State Department was investigating complaints about placement of foreign students in Arkansas by Allen’s firm.
Earlier this month, after repeated problems with Education First, Fayetteville High School decided to no longer accept students provided by the company. The following day, the company fired the Fayetteville family hired to host the students during the school year.
The federal investigation into Education First and its Fayetteville coordinators centered on allegations that exchange students stayed at the homes of their coordinators, which is prohibited by federal regulations.
Allen acknowledged Tuedsay that four of the 87 foreign students his company brought to Arkansas last year were placed in difficult host family environments.
“We bring 2,700 kids, teenagers, into the United States every year, there are going to be issues,” Allen said. “Our job is to minimize them and to respond to them when they occur and to respond to them appropriately.”
Rep. Tracy Pennartz, D-Fort Smith, who suggested the screening process the company used to hire regional coordinators was flawed, said the state would be watching.
“So if you all have made errors or mistakes, what we’re interested in is that you revise your procedures and processes so that those same errors don’t occur again,” she said.
After the meeting, Madison said she plans to develop legislation for the 2009 regular session that would give the state some oversight of the placement companies, including a registration requirement.
During the two-hour meeting, Leigh Hudson, a counselor at Fayetteville High School, told lawmakers she got to know each of the four troubled foreign students last school year and each was upset and emotional over the problems they faced with their host families.
In one case, a student, who was Lutheran, was forced to go to the host family’s non-denominational church and was told she would lose her cell phone and computer privileges if she did not, Hudson said. Another student was upset because her host family’s home smelled of sewage because of plumbing problems, she said.
Also, several students lived with Gerald and Sherry Drummond, regional coordinators for Education First, against federal regulations. The company fired the Drummonds this month after Fayetteville High quit accepting foreign students through the company.
Matt Smith, Education First’s director of operations, told lawmakers Tuesday that after the problems with the four students the remaining 83 in the state were questioned and were determined to be happy and comfortable with their host families.
Smith estimated as many as 20 percent of foreign exchange students have to be moved to another host family during a school year because they are incompatible.
The Drummonds were invited to testify at Tuesday’s meeting but did not attend.
2014: Gerald and Sherry Drummond currently work for (CASE) Culture Academic Student Exchange South Central Region