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High school foreign exchange students repeatedly placed with convicted murderer

By Anna Schecter and Kate Snow
Rock Center

The day after a Rock Center report on the sexual abuse of high school foreign exchange students aired, the State Department’s Inspector General issued a scathing report that challenged spokesperson Toria Nuland’s assertion to NBC News that the Department has taken the necessary steps to protect students.

The IG report said an exchange organization had for years been placing high school students in the home of a convicted murderer.  The Department did not terminate the organization from the program until a year after this information was discovered, the report said.

Watch the full Rock Center investigation HERE.

Some organizations that placed students in the homes of convicted felons continued for extended periods to operate as “designated sponsors,” according to the report.  Those "designated sponsors" are regulated by the State Department.

The report cited 118 allegations of sexual abuse or harassment of high school exchange students in 2010 and 2011. 

The new report’s findings contradict Nuland’s assertion on Rock Center March 14.  She said in response to a 2009 IG report that was also critical of the high school foreign exchange program, the Department had significantly improved the oversight.

In that 2009 report, the IG recommended that the Department conduct on-site reviews of the organizations that place students with families. The most recent IG report found only 39 of 92 organizations had been reviewed. 

Furthermore, the IG found 15 of the organizations did not comply with regulations. They failed to complete criminal background checks on families, resulting in teens being placed in homes of sex offenders and other felons.  Instead of shutting down or suspending the organizations as required by law, most received only a letter of reprimand. 

The report recommends strengthening the background checks because “significant risk remains that students may be placed in homes with criminals.”

The IG report accused the office in charge of the high school foreign exchange program of exaggerating their reform efforts to senior State Department staff, overstating how much they did to punish offending organizations.

The report also recommended more oversight for American students who go abroad to study in foreign countries.

“Although U.S. Embassies respond when there is a problem, they have no mandate to be pro-active or to conduct site visits that might forestall problems,” the report said.

The IG said the Department should establish a maximum fee that foreigners pay to participate.  NBC News reported that parents of high school foreign exchange students can pay more than $10,000 for their child’s year in the U.S. 

The report recommends capping the number of foreign visitors that come through the Department’s “exchange visitor program.”  More than 300,000 foreigners, including high school students, au pairs, camp counselors and doctors came to the U.S. in 2010

A spokesperson for the State Department said the timing of the release of the IG report was unrelated to the Rock Center report and that the agency "values the work of the Office of the Inspector General."

"We recognize that there are major issues that need to be addressed and over the last three years we have taken aggressive action to reform internal and external operations of the Bureau and its programs.  There remains much room for improvement and we are fully committed to addressing the issues outlined in the report," a State Department spokesperson said.

The spokesperson reiterated that the Department has a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of exchange program participants.

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