Desperate complaints and form-letter responses

Sara Pierce sits in a booth at the Buffalo Wings & Rings restaurant in North Port, Fla., where she works as a waitress.
Sara Pierce sits in a booth at the Buffalo Wings & Rings restaurant in North Port, Fla., where she works as a waitress. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Sara Pierce, a married mother of two in Sarasota County, enrolled at Kaplan University online with the goal of becoming a nutritionist. She shared her dream with the Kaplan recruiter, and with her professors and her academic advisors.

She was a week away from graduation — and $52,475 in debt — when, Pierce says, one of her professors mentioned to the class that the program wasn’t approved by the professional organization for nutritionists and that in some states students would not be able to get licensed. This was news to Pierce.

Florida, it turned out, was one of those states.

Desperate and shell-shocked, Pierce reached out to Florida’s Commission for Independent Education (CIE), the state agency that monitors for-profit colleges.

“I am thoroughly distraught, depressed, saddened and angered,” she wrote in November 2013.

Less than a month later, the CIE dismissed Pierce’s case after Kaplan pointed out that the lack of certification was disclosed on Page 110 of its catalog. By signing the enrollment agreement, she had legally acknowledged the catalog’s contents.

Pierce, whose interaction with Kaplan was online, said that she never saw the catalog.

Asked about Pierce’s case in a recent interview, Sam Ferguson, the CIE’s executive director, said he would look into it, but that Pierce’s best bet would be to call an attorney.

“We really have a very difficult time dealing with this online stuff,” Ferguson said.

Self-regulated industry

Florida’s Commission for Independent Education, part of the Department of Education, is the place to complain when a student has an issue with a for-profit college. According to its rules, if the commission determines that “ongoing complaints show a pattern of misinformation, lack of disclosure, or discrepancies between printed, electronic, and verbal information being given to prospective students,” the CIE can revoke a school’s license — making it ineligible for government loans — or put it on probation.

Although the CIE has this power to act on student complaints, it seldom, if ever, exercises that power.

In a formal public records request, the Herald asked the commission for any instance of a school being sanctioned because of a student complaint. The commission, which has logged more than 2,200 complaints in its 14-year history, replied that no such public record exists.

In Wisconsin, the equivalent of Florida’s CIE gets about 50 complaints annually. About half of those complaints turn into a full-scale investigation, and students prevail in about 60 percent of those investigations, according to the head of Wisconsin’s agency, David Dies.

“Oftentimes we find ‘Yeah, the school owes you a refund,’” said Dies, the executive secretary for Wisconsin’s Educational Approval Board. “We basically then impose that on the institution.”

Told how Florida’s investigations routinely favor schools, Dies said he was “surprised.”

“I can’t believe that, over that length of time, that there hasn’t been a single instance in which a student has had a legitimate complaint,” he said.

Florida’s CIE has a seven-member board. Members are picked by the governor and approved by the state Senate. By law, four of the seven members are executives of career colleges. Current members include representatives of the University of Phoenix and Southern Technical College, both of which were the subject of complaints reviewed by the CIE and examined by the Herald.

The University of Phoenix and another school represented on the CIE — Keiser University — were investigated by Florida’s attorney general. Keiser’s case was closed with a voluntary settlement to retrain some students. There was no admission of rule-breaking by the school in the agreement. Almost five years in, the University of Phoenix’s investigation is ongoing.

A school need not have a blemish-free record for its leader to oversee the CIE. David Knobel, CEO of Florida Career College, was on the commission when two of his Broward County campuses were raided by the FBI. A 2013 close-out memo by the U.S. Department of Education inspector general at the conclusion of a six-year investigation said the raids occurred after undercover agents visited the school, and recruiters “engaged in activities that included coaching students to lie about high school graduate status, income, and tax filing status, as well as producing fraudulent high school diplomas.”

Despite the raids in 2007, Knobel was reappointed to a new term on the commission six months later. In an interview with the Herald, he said the problems stemmed from the behavior of a few rogue employees, who were fired. By the time the investigation was closed with no criminal charges, Knobel had retired from Florida Career College and was no longer on the CIE.

According to the National Consumer Law Center, Florida is far from unique in having the for-profit college industry police itself. Many states have similar arrangements, the center said, which can lead to neglect of a state’s “consumer protection and oversight role.”

Never a violation

During the 2013-14 fiscal year, the CIE received 341 complaints — up from 299 the year before.

The Herald examined more than 150 of those grievances — all the complaints for South Florida campuses during an 18-month period. Names of the unhappy students were blacked out, making it difficult to explore their stories, though the Herald was able to piece together some of the identities. The Department of Education said the redactions were required by federal and state student-privacy laws.

Complaints ran the gamut: One student described “three courses being taught in the same room at the same time by one instructor.” Multiple complaints alleged that schools forged signatures and took out unauthorized loans. Another student asserted that the school lied about its accreditation — the stamp of approval that says it meets certain standards — taking “advantage of immigrants, like me.”

A student at a massage therapy school said that the school’s president made harsh threats because “he did not like my body technique.” The college president said “I will punch you in the face,” according to that student’s complaint.

The Herald separated the complaints it examined into five categories: dishonest business practices, billing, mistreatment, poor quality and unresponsive. With the exception of one student who withdrew his complaint, the CIE informed every student, in template language, that:

▪ “The issue has been addressed by the institution.”

▪ Or the school “has not been found to be in violation of the commission’s rules or statutes.”

▪ Or both.

The commission also inspects schools. For years, a CIE inspection could consist of as little as driving past the building and ensuring the school was there.

“I drove by the University of Phoenix #3431 located at 11410 NW 20th Street, Miami, FL 33172 and the building was open,” said one 2008 report. There was nothing beyond that sentence.

During subsequent inspections of the college in 2009, the inspector went through a lengthy checklist. However, there have been no additional inspections of any of the University of Phoenix’s nine Florida locations since then, the state said.

Here’s why: The University of Phoenix is one of hundreds of schools where the CIE follows a procedure called “license by means of accreditation.” Schools afforded this classification don’t have to get their state license renewed every year — they stay licensed until their accreditation expires, which can be every five years.

The CIE can require only that these schools provide the same reports that they give their accreditors. The problem is that accreditors’ track record on enforcement is mixed at best.

Many for-profit schools have “national” accreditation from organizations like the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) and the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC). Beth Wilson, who was an executive vice president with scandal-plagued Corinthian Colleges, served on the boards of both at one time or another.

During a two-year period that included 629 on-site evaluations, ACCSC did not find any instance of “substantial noncompliance,” according to a 2012 report by a U.S. Senate committee examining for-profit colleges. Although these schools can and do say they are “fully accredited,” their courses are generally not accepted for transfer at traditional colleges and universities.

Traditional schools receive accreditation from regional organizations, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. SACS is known for enforcing rigorous standards before bestowing its stamp of approval. Credits from regionally accredited schools are usually accepted at other traditional colleges and universities.

Florida’s CIE offers its “license by means of accreditation” to both nationally and regionally accredited schools. Ferguson, the agency director, said it was not unusual in the past for the agency to inspect these schools in a drive-by manner.

“We just wanted to make sure that they were there operating,” he said.

The inspections became more rigorous in 2014, he said.

An examination of state inspection records shows schools that were ultimately shut down by other government agencies for fraudulent conduct — such as Miami-based FastTrain — repeatedly received passing marks from the CIE.

Ferguson responded that his inspectors can’t be expected to stop “larceny” in the heart of a school operator.

“I have two people that do the visitations with a checksheet,” he said. “When they go in, they look around, they check stuff off.”

The CIE is also tasked with visiting newly shuttered schools to ensure that students are counseled on options for continuing their education or securing a refund. A 2011 state audit, the most recent one to be done, cited three instances where the commission failed to do that, a violation of Florida Department of Education rules.

Lawn tech to complaint taker

Student complaints about for-profit schools, including issues referred by other agencies, wind up on the desk of program specialist supervisor Michael Santoro. According to his employment file, he joined the Department of Education in 2000 after working as a lawn technician for Paul’s Pest Control. He began as a “consumer complaint analyst,” then was elevated to a program specialist for student loan programs.

The letters are bristling with anguish and anger, tears and frustration. Some are filled with typos and grammatical errors. Others are crafted with exquisite care. One letter, crudely printed and dated Aug. 5, 2013, is from a former student at the Pompano Beach campus of Everest University. The student said he or she was enrolled without a high school diploma or GED and complained that Everest promised to help with the process of getting a GED but never did.

The student wrote that one professor “was barely there so we had substitutes and they would make us watch movies in the class and take notes.”

The student attached documents showing that the Everest loans were now in default and that Sallie Mae, the federal loan servicer, was threatening to seize part of the student’s future wages.

“Please help me,” the complaint says. “I don’t have a job or any money at all.”

When the CIE receives such letters, it sends them to the school, along with a note requesting a response. After receiving the response, the commission contacts the student, almost invariably stating the complaint has been dealt with and the matter is closed. In its response, Everest said the student had received help in getting a GED, and that only movies with instructional value were shown in class. Santoro closed out the complaint the same day.

Another complaint, dated July 8, 2013, was filed by Nicole Albano, a 41-year-old single mom from Palm Beach. Albano said she was deceived by Florida Career College, which promised her a class schedule that was compatible with her full-time job, and then reneged after she enrolled.

“I feel like a cash cow for this corrupt education system,” Albano wrote. “They take advantage of the poor for government grants to gain wealth, then leave you hanging, unemployed, uneducated, further in debt and fooled.”

Florida Career College, in its response, acknowledged it had changed the curriculum, but said that Albano was given the opportunity to complete her program under the old format. Santoro, in a closeout letter to Albano, again used the template language, writing that the school “has addressed the issue and has been found not to be in violation of the commission’s rules or statutes.”

Santoro did not return calls from the Herald seeking comment.

In addition to the three other college executives, Santoro works for Nancy Bradley, owner of Daytona College and the fourth CIE member from the career college world. Until recently, she was chairwoman.

From 1999 to 2000, Bradley was the president of Florida’s for-profit college lobbying group, the Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools and Colleges. She’s still a board member. It’s the group that contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars to Florida candidates and state political parties.

Other CIE members also have been FAPSC president. CIE member Peter Crocitto of Keiser University was FAPSC president in the two years right after Bradley. Crocitto has been a CIE board member for more than a decade — frequently serving as chairman.

Knobel, the former CIE board member whose campuses were raided, was FAPSC president while on the CIE board, from 2003 to 2004.

Bradley said that there is “absolutely” no conflict between involvement in the lobbying group and serving on the state’s oversight commission. She said her many years working at for-profit colleges make her well-equipped to work for the taxpayers.

“That’s how you learn. That’s how you can bring a good perspective,” Bradley said.

Randy Flowers, a former student at Daytona College, said in an interview that he was “scammed” by the school, which promised its medical coding program would lead to an industry certification. Flowers said the school also reneged on a promise to cover the $325 cost for graduates to take the certification test.

Flowers, who was struggling to find steady work, said he couldn’t afford to pay for the certification himself.

Told that Bradley had been head of the state oversight commission, Flowers said, “Wow, that’s crazy.”

Member with a past

On July 3, 2013, a student complained to the CIE that Dade Medical College’s exit exam for nursing students consisted of material not taught in the course. The exam also was nonsensical and riddled with spelling errors, the complaint said. The test was critically important because students couldn’t graduate and apply for the state license exam unless they passed it first.

The student said the test was so garbled that the proctor couldn’t explain it and only four classmates passed.

Responding to the complaint, Dade Medical President Jonathan Janeiro wrote that all of the material in the exam had been provided to the students at the start of the program.

He did acknowledge the following words were misspelled on the test: necessary, client, blood, Hodgkin Lymphoma, argument, whether, hospital, urine, following, determining, involved, appropriate, council, fractured, flattened, disciplinary, appropriate (again), vaccine, client (again), monetarily and husband. And that other words on the test — “nare,” “partability” — weren’t actually words. And that there was a problem with subject/verb agreement.

He said none of it “changed or altered the meaning of the questions.”

The commission staff, which didn’t ask to examine the test in its letter to Dade Medical, accepted the explanation, informing the student that the school had been found “not to be in violation of the commission’s rules or statutes.”

Janeiro’s boss, Ernesto Perez, was a member of the CIE at the time, having replaced Knobel. Perez was an only-in-America success story — a high school dropout who started a string of South Florida colleges in 1999. By 2013, it had grown to six campuses and 2,000 students.

But Perez had a past. Long before he opened the college, he toured as a musician under the name Rhett O’Neill with the rock band Young Turk. In 1990, after a concert near Neenah, Wisconsin, the band returned to its hotel and Perez exposed his genitals to a 15-year-old girl, court records show. Perez, 21 at the time, wanted the teen to perform oral sex. When she refused, Perez repeatedly lashed her buttocks with his belt, court records said.

Perez was convicted and served several months. In 2002, about 2 1/2 years after he started Dade Medical, he got into trouble again. During a musical performance at the Bayside Hard Rock, police records said, he came off the stage during a melee and used his guitar to club a man over the head. He avoided jail through a pretrial diversion program.

No one noticed that he hadn’t divulged his past, as required, in the “Senate confirmation questionnaire” that all incoming CIE members must fill out.

But the rise of his schools drew scrutiny, especially when news stories described another controversy, his efforts in Homestead to get the city to sell his real estate company some public properties at a steep discount. Those efforts coincided with his secretly hiring Mayor Steve Bateman’s real estate agent wife and paying her roughly $100,000.

Amid the squabble over the Homestead land deal, his rock-band arrest from 1990 emerged. Prosecutors now noticed his signature and sworn statement on the CIE application.

He was charged with two counts of perjury and one count of providing false information through a sworn statement. Perez submitted his resignation from the CIE on Oct. 18, 2013, telling Gov. Rick Scott: “I thank you for the opportunity to serve.”

Perez, who sued the Herald for libel over its articles about the controversy, dropped the lawsuit in March 2015. He did not respond to repeated requests for an interview from a reporter and an editor. He sent a note to the Herald’s editorial board stating, in part:

“Our institution has been around for over fifteen years. We have graduated thousands of students. Over 800 of our nurse graduates are certified and working within the communities in which we serve, with an estimated contributing benefit to those communities of over 42 million dollars a year and growing.”

“I see nothing but a reporter with an agenda to tarnish and hurt our reputation without reason. ... I am a human being like any other who has made mistakes along the way but again I have worked very hard and prided myself in trying to be a good person and to help my community be a better place.”

The 2013 criminal charges are pending.

Sympathetic reception

When Florida regulators met with executives from ATI Career Training Centers in the spring of 2011, the school was mired in scandal.

In ATI’s home state of Texas, media reports had raised the issue of falsified job placement rates. The Texas Workforce Commission was questioning hundreds of suspicious “jobs” purportedly received by graduates.

But ATI found a sympathetic ear in Florida, where it had four campuses — in Fort Lauderdale, Miami Gardens, Oakland Park and Doral. In a meeting at the Doral campus, CIE institution evaluator Sam Humphries came away impressed.

Humphries wrote a letter to his superiors acknowledging there had been problems with ATI’s job placement numbers in the past, but pointing out that the company blamed this on a discontinued practice of giving bonuses to employees based on the number of students placed. He said ATI’s new process would verify job placements through multiple college employees, and also with the student’s new employer. And there would be no more employee bonuses based on jobs numbers.

“ATI has developed an outstanding process for reporting and verifying graduate placement,” Humphries wrote. Unlike Texas, Florida did not require an independent audit of ATI’s job numbers.

Six months later, in November 2011, the CIE staff visited the employers listed for 36 South Florida ATI graduates. Although most of the jobs checked out, there were problems. One employer said the student didn’t work there. For a second employer, the CIE wrote “this address is a residence, I knocked on the door but there was no answer.” For a third employer: “address does not exist.”

The following May, ATI’s Doral and Oakland Park campuses lost their accreditation because of suspicious job-placement rates. The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, in making that decision, said that ATI’s job numbers failed to meet the accreditor’s “accuracy, truthfulness and completeness” standard.

ATI filed for bankruptcy last year — months after a $3.7 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over fraud allegations.

Wings and buckets

Pierce, the former Kaplan student from North Port, near Sarasota, said her encounter with Kaplan began with repeated phone conversations with a school recruiter. He “seemed like a stand-up guy,” she said.

Like Pierce, the recruiter said he, too, had children. He said they were about the same ages as Pierce’s now 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.

She said he was the first of many Kaplan employees who failed to disclose that the school’s nutritionist program had not received critical approval and that graduates couldn’t get licensed in Florida and many other states. Pierce signed up after the recruiter reassured her that he was like a guidance counselor, and that he would be there to help throughout her time in school.

“I never heard from him again,” Pierce said.

Pierce, 31, said she went $52,000 into debt to get her bachelor’s degree, but there were other intangible costs. For 3 1/2 years, she took time away from her children, missing out on swimming lessons and movie nights.

The sacrifice was supposed to pay off with a job that would allow Pierce to spend more quality time at home with the family. She had planned for a job as a hospital nutritionist, where the shifts can start at 6 a.m. and end by mid-afternoon.

In 2011, Pierce posted her Kaplan honor roll certificate on Facebook. “Yay me!!!” she wrote.

She said she graduated in 2013 with a 3.99 GPA — having just found out that her unaccredited degree wouldn’t land her a job and that the Florida Commission for Independent Education would do nothing to help her.

Today, the 31-year-old mom, having given up hopes of becoming a nutritionist, works nights and weekends as a waitress at Buffalo Wings and Rings, serving up 50-piece buckets and beers.

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