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By Leslie Wolf Branscomb
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
April 26, 2003
A venerable San Diego-based student exchange organization has been reprimanded by the State Department for violating federal regulations that protect students visiting from abroad. The punishment was based on complaints filed by three foreign students who lived in San Diego until recently. They complained of being shuttled from home to home, forced into overcrowded and dirty houses, and – in the worst case – one was sexually molested by his host.
The State Department confirmed this week that American Intercultural Student Exchange of La Jolla, or AISE, has been formally sanctioned, put on probation for a year and required to implement a corrective plan.
“It comes as a wake-up call,” said Anne Ring, president of the organization, which she helped found in 1981.
The nonprofit organization bills itself as the nation’s third-largest student exchange program.
“It means they’re going to obviously be watching us closely, which is fine,” she said. “We’ve always had such a good reputation. I hope, and I know, that it won’t happen again.”
Ring said two employees – a local area representative and the regional coordinator for the Western states – have resigned under mutual agreement with the company.
The organization has hired a new U.S. director of field services, who will be in charge of ensuring that all employees are trained and the paperwork is done, she said.
The sanctions were based on the accusations of students from Thailand, Denmark and Germany who at one point lived in the same Tierrasanta home.
Through a classmate at Serra High School, they met a lawyer, Sally Arguilez Smith, who alerted the State Department to the problems the three were experiencing.
“Exchange students bring so much to our country, and they should be treated well, and know that the laws protect them,” Smith said upon learning of the sanctions. “AISE has acted atrociously, and they deserved more serious sanctions.”
One of the students is living with Smith. Another has moved to Los Angeles County and the third has gone home.
Denis Sladkov, an 18-year-old from Germany, said he lived in five homes in five months. “It seems like they just want to take as many exchange students as possible and, then, when they get here, find a home,” Sladkov said.
At his first home in Twentynine Palms, Sladkov said, there were fire ants in his bed and the house smelled of dirty dogs. Then, he said, he was placed with a couple that had marital and drug problems.
He was eventually moved to a Navy housing complex in Tierrasanta, where he lived with Racheal Rivera and her husband, their four young children and two other exchange students.
The situation was tense, Sladkov said, and the students spent most of their time doing housework and child care for the hosts, who seemed to not have the time or money to feed and care for the teenagers.
Sladkov said that he, like the others, was threatened with deportation by various employees of the organization when he complained.
Unhappy and tired of moving, Sladkov dropped out of school and returned to Germany in January.
The State Department identified Racheal Rivera as one of the program’s employees who violated federal rules by having more than one student per home and not keeping complete files on the students.
Rivera said this year that the organization kept dumping students on her. “They said it was my job, and if I didn’t take them they would have no place to go,” she said.
One home to another
Mary Vattanasiriporn, a 16-year-old from Thailand, lived with four families in as many months.Her first hosts, the Holts, lived in the northern Montana town of Havre. They had nine children of their own, and Mary shared a room with a student from China.
Mary said the house was filthy. They had no door locks, no privacy and the family’s teenage boys sometimes barged in while they showered. The girls held the door shut for each other when they used the bathroom and slept in their clothes.
Upon hearing Mary’s complaints, her parents tracked down a Thai girl who lived with the Holts the year before. She e-mailed them her photos of the Holt house, which showed rooms piled high with debris and walls with exposed wiring and insulation.
American Intercultural Student Exchange representative Penny Velk was sent to take the two girls from the home. Velk said she had to call the police when the host father became angry, and she was fired from the organization as a result.
Roger Holt said afterward that his house is “pretty shabby” and might seem “chaotic” to an outsider. But Holt said his family would rather take students sightseeing than clean house.
“We’re not into cars and clothes and fancy houses,” Holt said.
He contends the exchange students were spoiled and misled by recruiters. “AISE sells a package to the kids that doesn’t bear a whole lot of resemblance to reality,” Holt said. “Everyone thinks they’re going to Hollywood or Disneyland, then they end up in the hinterlands.”
Velk took the girls to the home of Kelly Toldness in Havre. Toldness recalled that Mary seemed surprised to find clean drinking glasses in her kitchen, and it pained her to think of what the girls’ first impression of America had been.
Toldness wanted to become their host, but said a student exchange representative who was a friend of the Holts accused her of kidnapping and called her home “a hostile environment.” The girls were removed by the organization 10 days later.
Mary ended up with the Riveras. There, she said, she slept in an unheated garage with newspaper covering the windows and was sick all winter.
Smith asked Mary to come live with her.
Smith said Rivera agreed. But it made Smith angry that no one from the exchange organization interviewed her or inspected her home for a month.
“You don’t just hand a kid over to a total stranger in a foreign country,” Smith said.
A student exchange representative at one point sent Mary an e-mail asking where she was and requesting her new host’s name and address. Mary later received an anonymous phone call warning her to stop complaining about the organization.
The boy from Denmark also lived with Smith briefly, before his parents sent him to live with family friends in Pomona.His father said their son dreamed of playing high school football in America, so they enrolled him in the student exchange program.
“It’s quite a glossy, shiny literature which assures us that our children will be taken care of, that it’s safe and they will have a good experience in the U.S.,” said the boy’s father.
The teen’s parents were concerned when their son was placed with a 53-year-old single man in Riverside, but student exchange officials vouched for David Goodhead.
“They said he was a wonderful man who really would give your children a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” the father said.
The boy was in the United States for three weeks when Goodhead molested him while camping in Yosemite. (It is the policy of the Union-Tribune to withhold the names of minors who are victims of sexual assault.)
Because Goodhead insisted that the student speak English when calling home, the boy surreptitiously sent a text message in Danish on his mobile phone to inform his parents about what had happened.
His parents said the student exchange organization did not respond to their frantic phone calls for 48 hours, despite assurances that emergencies are handled around the clock.
Goodhead was arrested and the boy removed from his custody. But, the father said, nearly a week passed before the exchange organization told them where his son was taken.
Goodhead was charged in U.S. District Court with two misdemeanor counts of engaging in unsolicited sexual conduct. On Feb. 11, he pleaded guilty to one of the charges, and is scheduled to be sentenced next month. He could receive up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Goodhead is free on bail and maintains a Web site with photos and descriptions of his nine previous exchange students. All are European boys, most of them blond like the student from Denmark, whose picture has been removed.
Laurel O’Rourke, the organization’s director of counseling, said the company does not do background checks on potential hosts, but did check on Goodhead after his arrest.
“He has hosted before and there had never ever been any sort of sexual innuendo,” she said. However, O’Rourke said, “He won’t have another student of ours.”
The Danish boy’s new host mother, Nancy Osgood, said she expected the exchange organization to inspect her home thoroughly.
But, she said, the inspection was cursory and the representative didn’t even ask to see where the boy would sleep. “It seems like they’re moving these kids around like chess pieces,” she said later.
Penny Velk, the former Montana representative, said she wasn’t well-screened before hosting her first student. “This woman just came in and glanced around and said, ‘Fine,’ ” Velk said. “She said she had to place three kids, and anybody who wanted a kid, she was going to give it to them.”
Velk said her daughter was an exchange student with the program last year in Australia, and she was moved three times. She said her daughter’s first host father was an alcoholic who made passes at the girl, and the second family spoke only Portuguese.
“There’s a total lack of communication,” Velk said of the program. “They just place kids and if they’ve got their money, they don’t give a damn.
“Now our son wants to be an exchange student, and I just can’t see spending $10,000 and you don’t know if you’re going to end up in a really rotten home or a nice home,” Velk said.
Thousands of students
The three students who complained to the State Department said their families paid between $7,000 and $10,000 for the exchange program.Student exchange spokeswoman Doris Lee McCoy said the company collects about $2,000 per student and still must raise funds to pay for advertising and staff.
The remainder of the fee, she said, is collected by the overseas agencies that recruit the foreign students.
Host families are not paid.
There are now about 32,000 high school students nationwide enrolled in foreign exchange programs with 75 agencies, according to Stanley Colvin, the State Department’s coordinator of foreign exchange programs.
“With that many students, there’s going to be an occasional dust-up,” Colvin said. “By and large, high school exchanges are not problematic.”
The State Department typically receives up to 10 complaints a year, he said. So for three to come from one organization was notable, and that’s what prompted the investigation, Colvin said.
The organization said it has arranged exchanges for more than 30,000 students. “The vast majority have wonderful experiences, thanks mainly to the hospitality and generosity of the American families,” said Ring.
American Intercultural Student Exchange officials said they usually bring about 3,000 foreign students to the United States a year, but that number has dropped to fewer than 1,000 this school year.
They attribute the decline to parents’ unwillingness to let their children travel overseas after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Former employees say Americans’ fear of foreigners has made it increasingly difficult to find host families.
The organization’s officials declined to discuss individual students, citing privacy concerns.
However, counselor O’Rourke said most student complaints can be attributed to homesickness, culture shock or the teens’ misconception that all Americans live like the rich celebrities they see on TV.
Student unhappiness peaks right around the holidays, O’Rourke said, but most problems are soon resolved with counseling and “tender loving care.”
Organization spokeswoman Doris Lee McCoy said teen-agers tend to be volatile, and some situations are made worse by language barriers and unrealistic expectations. “We have had some students that were pretty pampered” in their home countries, she said.
“Yes, there can be a few glitches. We’re dealing with human beings and they’re not perfect,” McCoy said. “But I know that by the end they will be homesick for their American families, and they will have learned more in that one year than ever before.”
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