http://www.thedahloneganugget.com/artic ... /01hla.txt
Hidden Lake Academy faces class action law suit
By Matt Aiken
Published: Wednesday, September 20, 2006 10:32 AM EDT
A federal class action lawsuit accusing Hidden Lake Academy of the “tragic mistreatment of troubled teenage students and families” was filed in the Gainesville branch of the United States District Court last Monday.
The civil action suit, filed by a team of Atlanta-based lawyers representing the families of two former students, centers around a laundry list of accusations against the therapeutic boarding school and its founder Dr. Leonard Buccellato.
Hidden Lake Academy is a SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) accredited boarding school which provides therapy for more than 150 students. The school is located off Camp Wahsega Road and was established in 1994.
On Sept. 11, the legal team of Gorby, Reeves, & Peters brought the operation of the establishment into question as it portrayed the school as an unsafe facility manned mostly by uncertified employees.
As a result, much of the lawsuit revolves around Hidden Lake's alleged misrepresentation of itself through its parent handbook and official Web site.
“HLA's zeal to cut corners and misrepresent itself stems from the fact that it is run in large part for the personal enrichment of its founder, defendant Buccellato,” the suit states.
One of the more serious accusations would appear to be HLA's alleged knowing introduction of “violent and severely disturbed students” into the school population, despite assurances to the contrary.
Included in the plaintiffs' complaint is an apparent internal e-mail, dated Feb. 24, 2006, which was reportedly sent by former Admissions Director Clarke Poole to eventual Admissions Director Nicole Fuglsang as he pointed out the instability of particular students.
“There is a fairly long list of students whose appropriateness I have questioned, especially in the last year or so,” the e-mail states.
The author goes on to point out students allegedly admitted against his recommendation and goes so far as to liken one of these students to Hannibal Lecter.
“He should have been in a padded cell in a psychiatric prison, and we knew it going in,” wrote the author. “It's difficult to distinguish his psychological evaluation, which was done by Len Buccellato and [name intentionally deleted in the suit] from that of Hannibal Lecter's.”
Poole reportedly left Hidden Lake Academy soon after the letter was sent.
“Hidden Lake's reluctance to reject court-ordered, severely disturbed and violent students stems from the fact that it is highly profitable to admit such students,” the complaint states.
The suit goes on to allege that the inclusion of some of these students led to several violent altercations and attacks on other students, one of which resulted in an investigation by the Lumpkin County Sheriff's Office.
However, Capt. Jason Stover with the sheriff's office said he had no record of such an investigation.
According to the suit, tuition at the boarding school runs $5,900 per month. Students are expected to stay for the duration of the program, which can run 17 to 21 months.
According to the suit, parents must put down a hefty deposit as well.
Since, according to the suit, the product is not what was advertised, parents and their children are bound to a shoddy deal, leaving parents with the predicament of leaving their child at the school or removing them and forfeiting the deposit.
“Nevertheless, despite the fact that parents incur huge educational and financial costs for pulling out their children before graduation, more than fifty percent of HLA's students during the Class Period - nearly 400 families total - have failed to graduate from HLA, and instead left the program prematurely,” the suit states.
The suit then goes on to question the accreditation of HLA staff members.
“Throughout the Class Period [of 2000 to the present] a large number and, at certain times, an overwhelming majority, of HLA's teachers have not been certified, while a sizable number of the counseling staff lack bachelor's or master's degrees in areas related to social work, counseling, or psychology, and have not been clinically trained in counseling or social work,” the complaint states.
The Hidden Lake Academy Web site claims that “teaching faculty at HLA hold a Bachelor to a Doctorate level degree in education.”
The complaint also alleges that employee Clay Erickson has taken the position of Director of Addiction Services despite having his license revoked by the Washington State Medical Disciplinary Board in 1993. The suit claims the suspension was due to “his alleged alcoholism and abuse of controlled prescription drugs.”
The plaintiffs also claim that HLA failed to consistently employ sufficient medical staff while also neglecting to deliver on the advertised promise of providing a full-time special education teacher.
“HLA has also during the Class Period only rarely employed a licensed learning disability specialist and within the past several months or longer has not employed a registered or properly licensed nurse,” the suit states.
“Hidden Lake also provides students with deficient medical supervision, allowing unlicensed staff such as secretaries and pharmaceutical technicians who are unsupervised by a nurse or proper medical authority to dispense prescription medication to students.”
The complaint goes on to allege that HLA students who have been placed on restrictions have been utilized to clear land for future building projects.
“Buccellato's use of students to do HLA manual labor was similarly not disclosed to families at the time they entered into their enrollment contracts,” states the complaint. “Further, Defendants' misuse of such students to do manual labor violates countless federal and state labor regulations.”
HLA is also accused of routinely performing strip searches on students after they return to campus following home visits. According to the plaintiff, this detail is not sufficiently advertised by the school.
The plaintiffs also allege that HLA often charges undisclosed extra fees despite the reported assurance that tuition is all-inclusive.
These reported extra charges range from marked-up toiletries purchases to exorbitant medical fees.
“Incredibly, HLA even overcharges students for vaccinations and shots, imposing a more than 50 percent mark-up for flu shots and $90 for a meningitis shot that costs significantly less,” the suit states.
“During the Class Period alone, these undisclosed overcharges have reportedly totaled some $800,000-$1,000,000 all of which amounted to pure profit to HLA,” the complaint states.
A myriad of accusations are also directed at Buccellato himself, who is accused of using school funds and employees for his own personal use.
“Buccellato uses HLA Inc. as his personal bank and employment agency by, among other things: billing to it significant amounts of his personal expenses, including extravagant dinners, gifts to friends and family, and lavish vacations totaling thousands of dollars; using school maintenance staff to maintain and repair personal rental properties; having the school pay his personal taxes and service his loan payments; arranging for present or former school therapists, such as Dr. Steven Taylor and Dr. Brad Carpenter, to work up to four days a week in his private psychology practice; enlisting school employees to work part-time at St. Francis Day School, a school that Buccellato also helps operate; and getting the school's food service provider to privately cater personal affairs, which he then bills to the school,” the suit states.
Buccellato is also accused of forging the name of his CEO, CFO, and Secretary Kenneth Spooner on official documents as well as bribing third party educational consultants in order to receive positive recommendations.
“Realizing the significant role consultants play in the school selection process, Buccellato showers consultants with gifts and other forms of undisclosed compensation,” the suit states.
The plaintiffs have also accused Buccellato of misappropriating donations that were intended to build a campus chapel.
“Buccellato has taken funds directly from the Student Chapel Fund program for his own personal use,” the complaint states.
Buccellato could not be reached for comment. Instead The Nugget was contacted by HLA's defense team of Quirk & Quirk.
Martin Quirk contended that the accusations against Hidden Lake Academy are merely the result of disgruntled parents who, after withdrawing their children prior to completion of the program, are now reluctant to forfeit their deposit. These fees, he added, are a normal part of such schools.
“A couple of parents that withdrew their children didn't like that provision, which they had signed,” said Quirk. “And apparently blew it way out of proportion.”
The first set of unidentified plaintiffs are residents of Florida whose child was enrolled at HLA November 2004 to May 2005. During this time they reportedly paid $63,268, including a non-refunded deposit of $14,550.
The other set of plaintiffs are current residents of Pennsylvania. Their child was at Hidden Lake February 2005 to August 2006. During this time period they reportedly paid $102,727, including a non-refunded deposit of $14,709. Both sets of plaintiffs pulled their children from the program three months prior to their expected graduation dates.
According to the complaint, this suit could open the door for hundreds of families to join in the class action, the damages of which could reach more than $5 million.
The legal group of Gorby, Reeves, & Peters, which declined to comment for this story, has demanded a trial by jury.
Hidden Lake Academy has 20 days from the initial filing of this complaint to respond to the suit.
“The school is going to vigorously defend it,” responded Quirk. “I think the justice system will prevail.”