When a foreign exchange year goes bad

.A foreign exchange student's complaints over living conditions he encountered with a local host family is prompting a state investigation.

A foreign exchange student's complaints over living conditions he encountered with a host family in Norwood Young America have prompted a state investigation that could lead to new legislation to safeguard visiting students.

After the Norwegian student complained that he had lent his host family $1,000 for groceries and their son's acting classes, he was sent back to Norway in March for unspecified rules violations by the exchange organization that brought him here . Now, he'll have to repeat his senior year there.

The incident spurred Minnesota Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann to investigate problems reported by other exchange students visiting Minnesota. He subsequently called on lawmakers to expand the state's authority to oversee foreign exchange programs.

The California-based Council for Educational Travel USA (CETUSA), which placed the student in the Norwood Young America home, is defending its practices in the face of reports of poor living arrangements for some of its foreign high school students, including some who arrived in Minnesota without host families lined up.

"It took me a while to realize this wasn't an isolated incident," Gelbmann said of the Norwood case. "The problems are systemic throughout the CETUSA organization."

A Minnesota House and Senate conference committee has agreed to language in a bill that would allow the secretary of state to investigate and terminate registrations of organizations that don't meet standards set by the state. It is now awaiting approval as part of a state finance bill.

Borrowing trouble?

While staying in Norwood, Espen Hansen lent his host parents at least $500 for groceries and $500 for their son's acting classes.

"The mother was nice to Espen, but CETUSA shouldn't have placed him there," Marianne Hansen, Espen's mother, said in a telephone interview. "I started sending him money" to make sure he had enough to eat.

A reporter's calls to the host family were not returned.

Hansen said she requested a new host family for her son. Months later, Espen was moved to the home of Joann Kilmer, regional coordinator for CETUSA, briefly before being returned to Norway.

Another Norwood parent began making inquiries about Espen's predicament, and that's when the secretary of state's office got involved. When Gelbmann began contacting some of the 37 other Minnesota schools where CETUSA has placed students, he found more reports of problems encountered by students.

While some of the schools had no complaints, the majority of those contacted had concerns, citing limited communication between the school and CETUSA prior to the students' placement, and less-than-ideal conditions with some host families, Gelbmann said.

He said it appeared that CETUSA was not visiting host families' homes prior to students' arrival, as required by federal law. Kelli Hanson, a "host mom" for another CETUSA student placed in Norwood, took in a second student whose first placement didn't work out. Even though federal law requires coordinators to "maintain, at minimum, a monthly schedule of personal contact with the student and host family," nobody from CETUSA ever checked on the new student, she said.

In interviews with CETUSA, the agency was not able to provide the Star Tribune with documentation that home visits were in fact occurring.

Some schools drop out

As a result of such concerns, Buffalo High School has ended its relationship with CETUSA.

In a March 31 e-mail sent to Gelbmann, Rick Toso, then Buffalo's interim principal, wrote: "Our counseling department recalled ... frustratingly poor communication from [CETUSA] coordinators, especially when there were concerns that we deemed serious," including "inappropriate home placements [that] were not resolved; last-minute demands on placements after the school year started; [and] pushing placements with little information available on the arriving student."

Other schools that reported concerns were in Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted, Cokato, Monticello and Aitkin. Blaine reported a positive experience.

"I'm convinced they have problems," Gelbmann said of CETUSA. "A number of school districts are no longer dealing with them. That obviously says something."

CETUSA defends itself

CETUSA officials say problems occasionally arise with student placements, but that its system is not flawed.

"With the economic crisis, a lot of families experience some very difficult times ... and we have cancellations as a result," said CETUSA CEO Rick Anaya. During orientation, exchange students are advised against lending money to host parents, he said.

"CETUSA enjoys one of the best reputations in the industry," Anaya said. The U.S. State Department lists it as the 14th largest of 92 designated secondary student exchange sponsors operating in the United States.

Officials at the Norwood school Espen attended said they had had a positive relationship with CETUSA up until this year, taking about a dozen students a year. But they remain concerned about how Espen's case was handled.

"CETUSA has never come forward with any hard facts as to why Espen was sent home," said Ron Brand, principal of Norwood's Central High. "I supported him staying. I found him to be a very good representative of his country. He was a gentleman and a good student." Brand said the school is still reviewing whether to work with CETUSA in the future.

CETUSA would not provide the Star Tribune with an explanation for its decision to send Espen home. But the U.S. State Department, which conducted its own investigation, said "it was determined that the student was terminated for breaking sponsor program rules," a spokeswoman said.

Espen and his mother said he had been threatened in October with expulsion from the program when he was caught drinking. But he was given another chance and did not drink again, he said.

CETUSA's Anaya said, "We gave him a chance and there was a second violation," but he would not say what it was.

Gelbmann said he wants the state to be able to act in such a case to make sure rules governing exchange programs are followed.

"Our objective is to approach CETUSA and say, 'We now have the authority to terminate your registration. However, we'd like to work with you to make sure this doesn't happen in the future.' "

But nothing is likely to happen in time to keep Espen from repeating his senior year.

He tried to return to finish his school year in Norwood after making private arrangements to stay with another family. But he was turned away by customs agents at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on April 13 because he lacked the proper visa -- CETUSA had canceled his original visa and a new visa he had obtained was not the one he needed. After back-to-back 16-hour flights, he arrived back in Norway. "I was so tired," he said, and "I felt like a criminal."

"I'd hoped to experience something new," he said. "I thought living in America would be fun and positive. I made a lot of friends. But it didn't end up how I'd planned."

Aimee Blanchette • 612-673-1715

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