Brutalized Ex Employee Sues Shuttered ITT

     PHOENIX (CN) — As ITT Educational Services shut down its 137 campuses last week, stranding 35,000 students just before the fall term, it was hit with a civil lawsuit from an employee who says it ignored her complaints about a violent student who sexually assaulted and shot her — and it fired her on her first day back at work.
     ITT shut down all of its campuses on Sept. 6 after the U.S. Department of Education barred it from accepting students who receive federal aid.
     In its Aug. 25 order, the Department of Education gave the chain college 30 days to post a $152 million surety bond to cover tuition refunds and other liabilities.
     ITT shares dropped by more than one-third, and on Sept. 6 the chain announced it was closing all of its schools immediately.
     Also that day, former ITT “enrollment representative” Kristen Trease sued the company in Phoenix Federal Court, seeking punitive damages for harassment and retaliation.
     She says ITT Technical Institute “completely and utterly ignor(ed)” her complaints of sexual harassment “at the hands of a student with a known, violent, sexual criminal history.”
     Carlos Webb enrolled at the Phoenix campus in 2011, and Trease was his representative. Webb already had been convicted in New Mexico of rape, kidnapping and burglary, and wore an ankle monitor at the time of his enrollment, Trease says in the lawsuit.
     Soon after Webb was admitted, he made sexual advances to her and asked her out on dates, and though she complained to supervisors and told them she was scared of Webb, due to his advances and his criminal history, ITT Tech “took no steps to investigate her complaints nor cease Mr. Webb’s unwelcomed conduct of a sexual nature,” the lawsuit states.
     Webb removed his ankle monitor and was sent back to prison, but ITT Tech readmitted him in 2012, Trease says. Again assigned to help Webb, he told her to get him an identification badge for him, but to “keep it and rub it all over her chest,” she says.
     She complained to her supervisors again, but no one investigated because they didn’t want to lose Webb’s tuition, Trease says.
     Trease’s attorney Ty Taber told Courthouse News that ITT Tech refused to act despite a string of complaints against Webb.
     “Nothing is done,” Taber said. “The multiple opportunities that ITT and similarly situated employers have to do something and they don’t do anything. … I guess that’s what happens when you have a for-profit business. The emphasis is on profit.”
     On April 24, 2012, as Trease tried to leave campus at 8 p.m., Webb approached her and said he needed to talk. When she declined, Webb told her, “I’m going to do something crazy; go to your car.”
     As she backed away from him, Webb held a gun to her neck, said, “You knew I liked you; you should have been with me,” then forced her across the street and sexually assaulted her.
     A motorcyclist drove by, heard Trease’s cries for help and shined a light toward her. She broke free from Webb, and he shot her through the chest.
     Another of Trease’s attorneys, Burr Shields, described her as a “trouper.”
     “She was shot right through her chest, and her collarbone was broken during the assault as well, and that still needs surgery,” Shields said.
     Taber added: “It’s been an unbelievable nightmare for her. You don’t expect to have this happen. There is no way to prepare or deal. This case gives me the shivers.”
     After surgery, Trease spent several days in a coma. She returned to work in October 2012 after recovering from the shooting, and was fired on her first day back.
     “She received an email the day of her return to work, and was told it was sent to her by mistake,” Shields said. “ITT denied it was going to fire her, but later that same day did.”
     Webb was convicted in 2014 of attempted second-degree murder, kidnapping and two counts of aggravated assault.
     Trease seeks damages for lost income, and compensatory and punitive damages for sexual harassment, retaliation and disability discrimination.
     “She did her best to mitigate her economic loss after being fired on the heels of all this, and she’s inspirational,” Shields said. “She’s been entitled to justice for a long time. … Now it’s time for her to sit in front of a jury and get her remedy.”
     Trease filed a similar lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court in 2012, but it was dismissed by a judge who found workers’ compensation an appropriate remedy.
     A spokeswoman from ITT Tech could not be reached for contact.
     Attorneys Shields and Taber are with Aiken Schenk Hawkins & Ricciardi, in Phoenix.
     Since ITT shut down a week ago, former employees have filed federal class actions in Delaware, Illinois and Indiana, under the WARN Act, for being laid off without 60 days notice.
     The chain school had about 8,000 employees across the country when it folded.
     When it shut down last week it blamed the closure on the actions of the Department of Education. However, the profit-seeking chain had been sued repeatedly for its recruiting practices, including numerous class actions from students over the years; lawsuits from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2014 and the SEC in 2015; and lawsuits from the states of Massachusetts and California. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia issued civil investigative demands against ITT in 2014 under consumer protection laws.
     The sudden closure of ITT, a week or two before the fall term begins, has left its 35,000 students scrambling to find new schools. Private, profit-seeking schools have grown tremendously in recent years, with more than 1.5 million students last year, according to federal data.
     Another large chain, Corinthian Colleges, also closed after multiple class actions from students and faced enforcement actions. The students and the federal government essentially accused the chains of using federal student aid as a cash cow, and/or misrepresenting the quality of the education they offered, and graduates’ employment rates. Corinthian Colleges had 72,000 students when it went bankrupt.
     The U.S. Department of Education in June recommended shutting down the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, the largest national accreditor for profit-seeking colleges. ACICS oversees 243 educational institutions, many of them profit-seeking, that enroll more than 800,000 students, and which received $4.76 billion in federal student aid in 2015, according to the Kent State University publication Inside Higher Ed.
     ACICS found “few if any quality issues” at Corinthian Colleges 59 campuses virtually until the chain collapsed in 2014, despite numerous class actions and state and federal investigations, according to Inside Higher Ed.
     The Department of Education gave its recommendation on ACICS in June to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) in June, which has 90 days to rule on the recommendation and return it to the Department of Education.
     If the DOE decides to de-accredit the accreditor, and survives what is sure to be a flurry of lawsuits, schools will have 18 months to find a new accreditor.
     The board member who introduced the motion to kill ACICS at the NACIQI meeting in June said ACICS had “serious, substantive problems with its oversight, which allowed the ‘systemic corruption’ of some of its member institutions,” according to Inside Higher Ed.
     Profit-seeking chain colleges grew tremendously after deregulation led by former Republican U.S. Speaker of the House Tom DeLay. The only three members who opposed the motion to terminate ACICS at the NACIQI’s June meeting were appointed by congressional Republicans.

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