Thu Mar 15, 2012 12:58 PM EDT
By Anna Schecter Rock Center
Fifty high school foreign exchange students reported being sexually abused or harassed by a host parent during the 2010-2011 school year, according to data released by the State Department in response to an NBC News probe.
The Department says that this number is a tiny fraction of the 29,000 students who came to the United States as exchange students last year.
NBC News requested the data as part of a Rock Center investigation that aired Wednesday night.
Watch the full Rock Center investigation HERE.
Three students who said they were sexually abused by their host parents were featured in the report, which was the culmination of a six-month investigation into problems with the exchange program.
NBC News found that a lack of oversight can allow sexual predators to take advantage of the program. And when sexual abuse did happen, there is evidence that the students go back to their home countries with little or no support from the exchange organizations or the State Department.
Over 200,000 students from around the world have come to America to experience the culture and attend a U.S. high school over the past decade. They are placed with host families by non-profit organizations that are approved by the State Department to find homes for them.
There is an office of 60 people in charge of monitoring the more the 25,000 students that come each year, according to State Department spokesperson Toria Nuland.
Critics say that number is too small, and the Department’s push to bring in as many students as possible has made it impossible for it to ensure each student is placed in a safe and nurturing host family.
“Over the past decade the people at the State Department who were responsible for managing this program were praised and encouraged because the size of the program was growing. If they reduced the number of students, the program would be safer,” said Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit research organization.
The program dates back to the 1960’s, but the Department said it only started compiling data about allegations of sexual abuse and harassment in 2009 after the Inspector General issued a scathing report on the program.
Stanley Colvin who used to be in charge of youth exchange programs left after 2009.
Of the 66 total cases of sexual harassment or abuse involving a student, nine did not involve a member of the host family, but rather a classmate, friend, neighbor or stranger, and one allegation was against the exchange student.
In all allegations involving the host family, the [organization] must remove the student immediately to a safe home and notify local authorities–police and/or child protective services–and the Department of State, according to the Department’s regulations.
There is no language in the regulations about getting counseling for the teens that do get abused, or staying in contact with the teen after he or she goes home.
Parallel to any law enforcement investigation, the Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs (ECA) is supposed to gather information to determine whether the sponsor has violated any regulations.
Nuland said that ECA has terminated a number of exchange organizations over the past six months and exacted fines on organizations that failed to conduct background checks on host families, as required by law.
“When they have cut corners in other ways we have fined sponsoring organizations, we’ve cut back their access to the program, et cetera. But these are the kinds of measures that we’re continuing to hone and reform,” Nuland said.
“The vast majority of these kids have a rich, enormously gratifying experience that lasts with them for a lifetime, said Nuland. “That doesn’t change the fact that we have to have zero tolerance for any of these cases, even one child abused is one too many. And it is our job to fix this and we will.”
Editor’s Note: Click here to watch Kate Snow’s full report, Culture Shock, which aired on Rock Center with Brian Williams.