Amid a widening police probe into sex abuse allegations, the Miami-Dade school district on Wednesday called on the federal government to bolster screening for families who host foreign exchange students.
The call for action comes weeks after Miami-Dade police accused a Cutler Bay man of seducing and marrying a Spanish exchange student, then using her to lure her underage sister to his home for a host of sex acts and lewd photos.
At a School Board meeting on Wednesday, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho asked the board to lobby for the adoption of tougher screening measures by the U.S. State Department, which monitors some exchange programs — including making it a requirement that host families submit to fingerprint-based criminal background checks.
“No parent in this country or abroad should ever fear that children are abused as they’re seeking an education in this country through a foreign exchange program,” Carvalho said. “The policies in place currently nationally are insufficient to guarantee the safety of these foreign students.”
The School Board voted unanimously to add the enhanced screening to its federal legislative program, a list of priorities the board recently hired a lobbying firm to promote in Washington, D.C. Miami-Dade hosts between 11 and 15 exchange students a year in its public schools, Carvalho said. Last year, a total of 500 high school students were hosted in Florida.
The California-based nonprofit Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, which has been pushing for years to require more comprehensive FBI-based fingerprint searches for host families, said Miami-Dade appears to be the first school district to formally push for heightened screening.
“We commend Miami-Dade schools for paving the way for stronger standards for this vulnerable group of children,” said director Danielle Grijalva. “I think all school districts need to step forward and apply pressure for the State Department to do right by these students.”
The call for heightened screening comes a week after Cutler Bay resident Dale Leary died of apparent suicide as police widened an investigation into his relations with a series of young female foreign exchange students he hosted in his home — a home he shared with his longtime first wife, a Miami-Dade schools administrator.
Leary divorced his wife to marry the student, Marta San Jose, days after she turned 18, according to Miami-Dade police. Then, Leary and San Jose convinced the girl’s parents to allow her 14-year-old sister to come to Miami, where they sexually abused her, according to police.
Leary, 50, and San Jose, now 21, were arrested in June and pleaded not guilty to a host of sex charges. Leary posted bail and was found dead last week in the rear passenger area of a running car, next to his ex-wife, Claudia Leary, 47, who was unconscious when paramedics rushed her to Jackson South Hospital.
Detectives are trying to determine whether Leary’s ex-wife participated in or aided in the sexual abuse of any students. She has been removed from her post at the J.R.E. Lee Education Center in South Miami and “placed on alternate assignment with no student contact until further notice,” the school district said in a statement.
San Jose is scheduled to appear in court Thursday as her lawyer works to get her free on bail. Her defense lawyer has said she might be one of Leary’s victims.
Detectives are also trying to determine whether other exchange students hosted in the Learys’ home might have suffered abuse — and why Chicago-based exchange program CCI Greenheart placed students in the home of a convicted felon.
Dale Leary had a felony conviction for sexually assaulting a woman in Coral Gables in 1985. Records of his conviction are easily accessible via online Miami-Dade court records and a $24 Florida Department of Law Enforcement criminal-background search.
CCI Greenheart said it subjects hosts to “independent third-party background checks” and that program coordinators visit the home and “regularly communicate with our students to ensure their experience is consistent with our standards.” A company representative told the Miami Herald last week that it could not provide additional information about this case because it is a legal matter, but said CCI “will conduct a thorough assessment” of its screening procedures.
San Jose’s younger sister did not come to the U.S. as part of a CCI program, the company said.
The Leary case casts further scrutiny on the foreign exchange industry, which critics say is largely unregulated. The State Department currently requires exchange programs to screen host families through personal references, an in-person interview and criminal background checks, but does not require that the background checks include FBI-based fingerprint searches. A 2012 report from the department’s Inspector General found that some organizations failed to properly vet host families, placing teens in homes with sex offenders and other felons, and relied on third-party databases, which are sometimes incomplete, to check if prospective hosts had a criminal record.
Authorities have documented numerous cases of hosts abusing foreign students in Florida and across the country. Between January 2010 and October 2011, the most recent period for which data is publicly available, the State Department received reports that 118 exchange students had been the victims of sexual abuse or harassment, according to the Inspector General’s report.
At a minimum, host families should be subjected to the same level of screening as anyone who works with or around children in the Miami-Dade school district, Carvalho said, which includes fingerprint-based state and federal background checks.
“Anything short of that is an insult to children,” Carvalho said. “We do not allow individuals to work around our kids without meeting that level of scrutiny.”