weather icon Clear

“He took her to the bathroom,
pinned her against the wall
and said he’d rape her if she told.”

Complaint, Department of Health and Human Services, June 2018

“ ... staff at the facility are using handcuffs
on several youth placed at the facility ... ”

Complaint, Department of Health and Human Services, December 2016

“ ... Arsenic, fluoride, and coliform may all be present
in elevated levels, but we have no idea. The students
at this school don’t have anywhere to go
and I am concerned for their safety... ”

Internal email, Division of Environmental Protection, August 2017

“ ... they did not feel safe while Patty was working ... ”

Report, Nye County Sheriff’s Office, July 2017

“ ... these issues have been broached before and
they continue to resurface...

Internal email, Department of Health and Human Services, August 2017

“ I don't know who else to contact ...
every time the state shows up,
people close ranks and paperwork is lost
and it all just gets swept
under the rug...

Report, Nye County Juvenile Probation Office, December 2018
Northwest Academy, Amargosa Valley
Deserted in the Desert
This is a four-part story examining the multi-agency failures in Nevada that allowed abuse and neglect to continue for years at Northwest Academy, culminating in the school’s closure in February and the arrest of its owners and a staff member.

Deserted in the desert: Abuse allegations went unchecked for years at Nye County school

Years of abuse, neglect go unchecked at Amargosa Valley boarding school


housands of records examined by the Las Vegas Review-Journal show a yearslong history of abuse and neglect allegations at Northwest Academy, a private boarding school for at-risk youth.

Yet divisions within the Department of Health and Human Services, which licensed the Amargosa Valley school as a child-care institution and were responsible for investigating the abuse claims, found many of them to be unsubstantiated.

Even when problems with the school were validated, documents show that little if any action was taken to hold the school accountable.

Allegations also often fell by the wayside without clear communication between other state agencies that could have had a hand in shutting down the school, records show.

Unaware of the complaints, the Department of Education continued to renew Northwest Academy’s license as a private school.

Northwest Academy owners Marcel and Patricia Chappuis appear in court at the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas on Feb. 14, 2019. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco

It wasn’t until earlier this year that the agencies officially began exchanging information for follow-up. By then, Northwest Academy had been shut down following the arrests of the school’s owners, Marcel Chappuis, 72, and his wife, Patricia, 66, on suspicion of allowing child abuse or neglect.

Most of the charges center around contaminated water at the academy, Nevada’s only private boarding school, when it closed in February.

In late December — shortly before the Nye County Sheriff’s Office launched an abuse investigation at the school — a frustrated Northwest Academy employee sidestepped the Department of Health and Human Services, instead reporting directly to the Nye County Juvenile Probation Office that another staff member had dislocated a student’s arm while restraining him.

“I just feel that it is something else the state will ignore or Patti will talk her way out of,” the employee wrote to the juvenile probation officer, referring to owner Patricia Chappuis. “I don’t know who else to contact because I feel like every time the state shows up, people close ranks and paperwork is lost and it all just gets swept under the rug.”

High staff turnover

Reports of abuse came as early as 2016 from social workers, students and employees, records show.

Some students reported being dragged across the desert by their necks; a girl claimed that a staff member molested her at night in her dorm room, threatening to rape her if she told anyone; and a social worker reported “inappropriate sexual behavior” between staff and students.

“Nobody seems to know if law enforcement was notified or if this was just swept under the rug,” the social worker stated in one of the reports.

Authorities who investigated later found those allegations to be unsubstantiated or did not make any arrests. The owners have said there was never any abuse.

In 2017, the Nye County Sheriff’s Office investigated allegations of child abuse involving school operator Patricia Chappuis but did not arrest her.

Several staff members told the Review-Journal that they quit after seeing a lack of action taken by state officials and law enforcement over such accusations.

She basically told us to shut our mouths... She said if we went to the police again we would never get jobs in Pahrump.

Edward Clay, former Northwest Academy employee

Edward and Jackie Clay, a married couple who worked together at the school in 2017, said they came forward and reported several instances of abuse by staff members to the Sheriff’s Office.

But when Patricia Chappuis learned that the two had gone to the Sheriff’s Office, the couple claims, she threatened to fire them if they ever contacted law enforcement officials again.

“She basically told us to shut our mouths,” Edward Clay, 31, said. “It was that small-town mentality. She said if we went to police again we would never get jobs in Pahrump.”

Frustrated that nothing came of their reports, the two quit in fall 2017. They had been working there for less than a year.

The Division of Child and Family Services said in a statement that it is internally reviewing its Northwest Academy files.

"If the review reveals the need for additional staff training or policy or practice change, appropriate action will be taken," Social Services Chief Karla Delgado wrote in an email. "In addition, DCFS regularly reviews all policies and procedures in an effort to ensure continuous quality improvement."

The division declined to comment on allegations of specific incidents for confidentiality reasons.

When problems with the school were substantiated, such as improper nutrition and lack of supervision, the Division of Public and Behavioral Health issued statements of deficiencies and reviewed the school’s plans of corrective action — as required by state law.

The division, which licenses child-care institutions, issued deficiencies at least nine times over roughly two years, according to documentation from the division. It also issued three fines as allowed by state law for a total of $1,200, according to an email from the division.

Inspection records by the Department of Health and Human Services also show a number of questionable practices.

A March 2017 inspection found that the school was not meeting daily nutritional needs for each student. Northwest Academy appointed a “kitchen manager” as a result “to ensure that the appropriate inventory is available.”

That same inspection also led to the school implementing a “daily shift change report,” after the inspector conducted a review of the school’s records and found that Marcel Chappuis failed to maintain counseling or therapy case notes “for students with self-harming behaviors,” according to the document.

The department also noted a lack of proper supervision as required by state law. In one case, a group of children left unsupervised in the boys showers watched as one classmate broke another’s jaw.

Tristan Groom, a former student who attended Northwest Academy in early 2016, when he was 12, claims that staff sometimes even encouraged students to fight.

“They wouldn’t stop it or anything. It was just fight, fight, fight,” said Tristan, now a soft-spoken 15-year-old. “It was like their TV show.”

A 2016 Legislative Counsel Bureau audit detailed a slew of deficiencies in Northwest Academy policies that violated state law.

It found that the school did not have approved procedures in place for treating mental health and substance abuse disorders.

And there were “serious concerns” over the school’s medication practices.

Medication that Tristan Groom, 15, was prescribed while he attended Northwest Academy in Amargosa Valley. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco

Tristan, for example, was prescribed five different medications when he arrived at the school. His mother, Nicole Bayer, has said that the school failed to disclose why his son needed them.

After Tristan was taken out of the school, Bayer said it took her over a year to wean him off all the medications. She said she took her son to another doctor for a second opinion, and now he no longer takes the medications prescribed by the school.

Margot Chappel, a deputy administrator for the Division of Public and Behavioral Health, said the agency never aims to shut down an institution.

“It’s the goal to encourage and inform the facilities to come into compliance,” she said. “We just don’t look at it like, ‘When do we shut this down?’ ”

That philosophy allowed Northwest to continue operations despite years of recorded noncompliance and allegations of abuse.

“Obviously, the issues did end up repeating themselves out there and that does happen, to be totally honest,” Chappel said. “We can always do better, and we are looking at this from a ‘how do we learn?’ perspective.”

When division employees were asked how long the division should give a noncompliant facility chance after chance, the question was met with a period of silence.

After a long pause, Chappel said, “I asked that question a number of times throughout the process.”

‘Patty is getting out of hand’

Meanwhile, the 2017 allegations against Patricia Chappuis would not resurface until Feb. 1. That was days after the Nye County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation following reports of abuse against Northwest Academy shift supervisor Caleb Hill, 29, from a former student and staff member.

Caleb Hill, 29, of Pahrump was the first to be arrested in connection with a child abuse investigation at Northwest Academy. (Nye County Sheriff’s Office)

Hill was arrested in connection with the investigation and faces one count of child abuse.

The investigation also revealed ongoing issues with the school’s water, which had levels of arsenic and fluoride that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations.

Two weeks later, Marcel, a psychologist, and Patricia Chappuis were arrested in Las Vegas on 43 counts each of allowing child abuse or neglect in connection with the water issues.

Patricia Chappuis also faces two felony counts of child abuse stemming from a July 20, 2017, incident, which originally was investigated by Nye County Sheriff’s Deputy Sedrick Sweet.

According to her arrest report, filed on Feb. 12, Patricia Chappuis had four female students stand against a wall near the school’s classrooms as punishment. But when one of the girls stepped away from the wall, Patricia Chappuis allegedly pulled her to the ground by the hair, got on top of her and restrained her by the arms.

Multiple juveniles interviewed stated that they did not feel safe while Patty was working and that she appears to have anger issues.

Report from Nye County Sheriff’s Deputy Sedrick Sweet

At the time, staff members and students who witnessed the woman’s behavior told Sweet that another staff member had to tell her at least three times to get off the girl.

“Patty is getting out of hand with students,” one of the girls confided in Sweet, saying that she had recently been kicked by Patricia Chappuis, according to the report.

The girl showed Sweet bruises on her body, and photographs were taken as evidence, the report stated.

“Multiple juveniles interviewed stated that they did not feel safe while Patty was working and that she appears to have anger issues,” Sweet wrote in his 2017 investigative report.

Despite Sweet’s conclusion that both girls had injuries consistent with abuse, the Nye County district attorney’s office did not move forward to prosecute the case at the time.

Nye County Lt. David Burochowitz told the Review-Journal that the case has remained open but pending.

The property owned by Marcel and Patricia Chappuis, the married operators of the private boarding school, Northwest Academy, in Amargosa Valley, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco
The property owned by Marcel and Patricia Chappuis, the married operators of the private boarding school, Northwest Academy, in Amargosa Valley, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco
The property owned by Marcel and Patricia Chappuis, the married operators of the private boarding school, Northwest Academy, in Amargosa Valley, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco
The Amargosa Valley property owned by Marcel and Patricia Chappuis, the married operators of Northwest Academy, on Feb. 26, 2019. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco

Formal charges against the couple and Hill, who are free on bail, had not been filed as of early May. They are due in court June 17. Nye County District Attorney Chris Arabia has declined to comment.

The Chappuises returned to the school in late April — for the first time since their arrests — to tour the grounds with the Review-Journal.

“Our premise has always been, by virtue of these kids having to be here, we owe them the highest level of respect,” Patricia Chappuis said, tearing up. “There was never any abuse, ever.”

The couple’s attorney, Malcolm LaVergne, has maintained that the Nye County Sheriff’s Office is targeting and harassing his clients, purposefully humiliating the two “senior citizens” by arresting them in the middle of the night “like they’re El Chapo.”

But investigators contend the couple planned to flee the state.

“They were taking things from the building and selling those items from the property in Amargosa. As a result, a swift arrest was planned and executed,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. “After arriving at their residence in Las Vegas prior to their arrest, it was confirmed that their personal vehicle was loaded with personal effects giving the impression that the information we received was correct.”

Criminal conduct, court cases overlooked by state licensing officials

he owners of Northwest Academy boarding school and its predecessor, Horizon Academy, had strong ties to a global network of schools that had a well-recorded history of abuse and neglect allegations.

Yet those connections never surfaced during the licensing process, and the private school operated in rural Amargosa Valley from 2005 until February, when it was shut down by the Division of Public and Behavioral Health. A day earlier, owners Marcel and Patricia Chappuis were arrested and face 43 counts of allowing child abuse or neglect. Patricia Chappuis — who initially was arrested under the name of Patricia Mathis — faces two additional felony counts of child abuse in connection with a 2017 incident.

Patricia Chappuis denied the allegations in late April when the couple visited the campus, which has been taken over by another youth facility program that had been sharing the campus with Northwest Academy.

The couple was allowed to take over the school back in 2013 under Northwest Associates Psychological Services Inc., which lists Marcel Chappuis as president and a Patti Thompson as a registered agent.

Records show Marcel Chappuis had already filed for personal bankruptcy and a woman going by the name of Patti L. Thompson had pleaded guilty to embezzlement in New Mexico in 1993. That Patti L. Thompson has the same date of birth and Social Security number as Patricia Chappuis, court and arrest records show. Yet Nevada Department of Education officials still authorized the couple to control a school for 30 to 40 students ages 12-18.

Located along Highway 373, the roughly 12-acre school site was originally known as Horizon Academy and managed by Jade Robinson — an affiliate of the now-defunct World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools.

World Wide first emerged in 1998, when it was registered as a corporation in Utah.

According to lawsuits filed against World Wide in the late 1990s and early 2000s, students were abruptly plucked from their homes and placed into the facilities, where they were deprived of basic needs such as adequate nutrition and water. Some of the allegations are eerily similar to those against Northwest Academy.

In at least some lawsuits, World Wide denied allegations of abuse.

A 2006 lawsuit filed on behalf of at least 27 plaintiffs alleged that the children experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse at multiple World Wide schools, which psychologist Marcel Chappuis had been affiliated with since at least 1992.

“Such abuses were inflicted on some children for several years,” the complaint states. “In many instances, the abuse could be accurately described as torture of children.”

Court records show that most, if not all, of the federal cases were dismissed, although it is not clear how many were settled out of court.

Malcolm LaVergne, the attorney representing Marcel and Patricia Chappuis, said his clients were not involved with any wrongdoing at World Wide schools.

“I can tell you Dr. Chappuis had nothing to do with any of these dirty things,” he said. “Just because you’re involved or advise someone, or (are) in some way affiliated with them, doesn’t make you a part of them or responsible for what they ultimately do.”

Such abuses were inflicted on some children for several years. ... In many instances, the abuse could be accurately described as torture of children.

2006 lawsuit filed against World Wide

In the 2006 case, at least, World Wide’s insurance company agreed to pay a total of $500,000 to a number of former students, according to a letter provided to the Las Vegas Review-Journal by one of the plaintiffs. Thomas Burton, an attorney who represented plaintiffs in multiple lawsuits against the organization, also said he reached a number of settlements that ranged from about $80,000 to $1 million.

In 2004, a World Wide school in Ensenada, Baja California, for which Robinson was an administrator, was shuttered by Mexican authorities over “conditions that they believe warranted immediate suspension of operations,” according to the U.S. State Department.

By late 2004, he had returned to the United States to manage Horizon Academy in Amargosa Valley.

In order to operate, Horizon Academy needed two licenses: one to run as a private school under the Department of Education, and the other as a child-care institution under the Department of Health and Human Services. A permit from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection also was necessary, since the property has its own public water system.

In 2007, records show, Marcel Chappuis was still providing his services to World Wide-affiliated programs, including Robinson’s latest project in Amargosa Valley, a small community about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Repeated attempts to reach Robinson and Robert B. Lichfield, one of the founders of World Wide, for comment were unsuccessful.

J. Ralph Atkin, an attorney who records show was an original trustee of World Wide, declined to speak to the Review-Journal.

“You’re bringing up ancient history. You really are. This goes back 10 years,” he said before hanging up the phone.

The home of Northwest Academy owners Marcel and Patricia Chappuis on the school's property in Amargosa Valley on Feb. 2, 2019. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco

From Horizon Academy to Northwest Academy

By 2013, Robinson had packed up and relocated Horizon Academy to LaVerkin, Utah, according to business records there.

Marcel Chappuis and his wife, Patricia, took over the Nevada boarding school, renaming it Northwest Academy. He obtained the needed licensing under a corporation, Northwest Associates Psychological Services, despite having filed for personal bankruptcy in 2011.

Under their ownership, according to their most recent private school license renewal application filed in 2017, the school served students from ages 12 to 18, and the boys and girls were kept separated.

“This was my attempt to do it the way I believed a school should be structured,” Marcel Chappuis told the Review-Journal in late April.

State authorities also did not flag Patricia Chappuis, a registered agent of the corporation under the name Patti Thompson, who court records show has faced fraud and embezzlement allegations in multiple states.

In 2002, a woman by the name of Patricia Lynn Mathis -- also listed as Patti L. Thompson -- was charged in Las Vegas Justice Court with two felony counts of writing bad checks, records show. The case was eventually dismissed in February 2012 after she paid restitution.

In 2009, Patti L. Thompson was sued in Clark County after refusing to pay her rent. The plaintiff’s attorney confirmed that the defendant in that case was Patricia Chappuis. Records show that the court sided with the plaintiff, ordering Thompson to pay back more than $57,000.

Court records show that a woman named Patti L. Thompson also pleaded guilty in 1993 to embezzlement of over $20,000 in New Mexico. Other court records in New Mexico and California show a woman by the name of Patti or Patricia L. Thompson was sued for fraud, misappropriating funds and negligence.

Patricia Chappuis told the Review-Journal that she was a victim of identity theft. And her attorney, Malcolm LaVergne, denied that his client has a criminal record. In response to a request, he did not provide documentation regarding proof of the identity theft.

Both the Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services said they were not aware of the World Wide organization, Marcel Chappuis’ bankruptcy filing or his wife’s criminal history. Officials said the couple passed background checks conducted by both departments.

Department of Education spokesman Greg Bortolin said nothing in the couple’s applications or background checks “triggered action.”

Two decades later,
abuse claims sound all too familiar

Three men shook Bill Boyles awake in the dead of night in October 1997.

“Get dressed,” they yelled. “We’re taking you to school.”

The men towered over Boyles, then 14, as he nervously threw on some clothes.

“I’m sorry,” his parents told him as they stood in the doorway, reduced to tears. “I’m so sorry.”

It had been about a month since he dropped out of high school in Orlando, and he was sure in that moment that his parents had called the police on him.

But a week later, he stepped off a plane in Samoa, an island in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. His parents sent him to Paradise Cove, a part of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools.

“Samoa is the perfect place for teens to sort out their lives and make a new beginning,” claimed a 1997 World Wide brochure given to Boyles’ parents. “The setting is beautiful, peaceful, and conducive to change. In this new cultural setting, the teens are immediately pulled out of their comfort zone and immersed in a new way of life that is very appropriate.”

But the brochure did not match his experience.

“The way that they treated us was terrible,” said Boyles, now 36 and married to another former World Wide student. “I don’t think you’d get away with treating prisoners like that here in the United States.”

During his 30-month stay at Paradise Cove and later at Casa by the Sea in Mexico, another World Wide facility, he recalled seeing staff pin down students, eating food that made him sick and students being placed in “isolation rooms” for hours at a time as punishment.

Former Northwest Academy student Tanner Reynolds, 13, in Pahrump on Feb. 6, 2019. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco

“The first thing they tell you is, ‘You’re a (screw) up, you’re ruining your parents lives, you’re ruining your family,’” Boyles said of staff. “‘Your parents don’t want you as part of the family anymore, that’s why they sent you here.’”

Roughly 20 years later, Tanner Reynolds took in the vastness of the open desert surrounding Northwest Academy as he stepped out of the juvenile probation officer’s car in November.

The 13-year-old is from small-town Pahrump, but even this was surprising to him.

His anger issues and attitude landed him at the boarding school. His mom, Angela McDonald, said she hoped Northwest Academy’s program -- which claimed to be therapeutic -- would steer Tanner away from any real trouble before it could happen.

Instead, Tanner felt he was thrown into a culture of abuse by staff members that fueled his anger.

And sometimes, he said, it would work. He would lash out and then get into trouble, which meant at times getting slammed to the ground and, as Boyles also recalled, pinned down by staff.

Though World Wide is now defunct, some of its practices are similar to those found in Northwest Academy decades later.

“That would be 19 years now that I’ve been out of the program,” said Boyles, who now lives in Alabama. “And nothing’s changed, apparently.”

Failed compliance forced students to live with foul water

orthwest Academy students were exposed to contaminated water for years while the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection failed to hold the school accountable.

The private boarding school stopped treating its water in October 2016, leading to levels of arsenic and fluoride that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations. Records also show that the Amargosa Valley school racked up dozens of violations dating back to at least 2016.

Marcel and Patricia Chappuis, the school’s married owners, each were arrested in February on 43 counts of allowing child abuse or neglect. The counts, one for each student enrolled at the time, stem from the contaminated water, according to the Nye County Sheriff’s Office.

State officials shut down the school the next day.

Over the years of noncompliance, the division sent letter after letter, extending deadlines, urging the school to fix any number of recurring issues — including its failure to test the water for bacteria and to obtain appropriate water operators as required by state law.

Students, meanwhile, had reported widespread skin rashes that they believed were caused by showering in the water.

Aerial photo of Northwest Academy, a private boarding school in Amargosa Valley, on February 15, 2019. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s

And although the division had the authority to issue fines of up to $25,000 a day or to seek a court injunction, as of late April it had not done so.

“We generally work to bring the system into compliance before we direct our efforts toward assessing fines and penalties,” said My‐Linh Nguyen, chief of the division’s Bureau of Safe Drinking Water.

In the backdrop, staff and those working with the school grew increasingly frustrated.

“I’m not sure what kind of added pressure NDEP can put on the Northwest Academy but John and I have about had it with this place,” wrote Brian Oswalt, one of the school’s former waste water operators, in an email to the division in July. “I think NDEP needs to tell them how serious these issues are.”

History of noncompliance

As an operator of a public water system, Northwest Academy was required to comply with state regulations, including preparing quarterly water monitoring reports and hiring drinking and wastewater operators, according to the Division of Environmental Protection.

As early as 2008, when the school was operating as Horizon Academy, it received a notice of alleged violation for failing to monitor arsenic levels in its water throughout 2007.

The rest of the school’s water history is littered with numerous violations.

At their highest, arsenic levels in the school’s water sat at 0.104 milligrams per liter, well above the EPA’s recommended 0.01 milligrams per liter. The school’s fluoride levels measured 3.8 milligrams per liter, surpassing the EPA’s standard of 2.0 milligrams per liter.

And when the school was potentially on track to fix such issues, the owners showed both a reluctance and inability to pay for repairs needed.

we both know that they are just dragging their feet and intentionally not complying... When they do end up in court, I don't want to be part of that either.

Leroy Daines, water operator

“We informed them that one of their influent pumps wasn’t working properly and they balked at the replacement price that John quoted them,” Oswalt wrote in an email to the division in July.

This year, another water operator, LeRoy Daines, complained to the division that the school wasn’t paying him.

“They have not followed through on any of my recommendations, and we both know that they are just dragging their feet and intentionally not complying,” Daines wrote to the division. “When they do end up in court, I don’t want to be a part of that either. Plus, getting them to pay on time is like pulling teeth!”

Emails obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal also show a lack of urgency from division staff. After the school lost its water operator in late 2016, the division sent a letter to the school’s owners.

“We have made several fruitless attempts to contact your organization by telephone,” it stated, reminding the school that it is required to have a certified water operator, who is responsible for conducting required monitoring tests and making sure the school’s water system works as designed.

Trash is seen in a Northwest Academy well in Amargosa Valley in May 2017. (Nevada Division of Environmental Protection)

About four more months would go by before division staff realized that no one had followed up on the issue.

“What is the status of the certified operator?” another employee, forwarding a copy of the letter, wrote in an email to staff on April 21, 2017. “This was sent out four months ago and (the database) still does not have a certified operator noted.”

The division then continued to extend deadline after deadline for Northwest Academy.

It first notified the Department of Education of the water issues in August 2017, almost a year after the school had stopped treating its water.

Shortly after the department was notified, Donna Wix, former education programs professional, expressed concern over the division’s “generous timeline” in an email exchange with Nguyen.

“It is our standard at the Bureau of Safe Drinking Water to provide sufficient time for the water system to achieve compliance,” Nguyen wrote in part.

“I understand Mi-Lynh,” Wix responded. “It just seemed like they have had since October 2016 to get it together.”

By March 2018, the department was set to revoke the school’s license but never did so after learning the owners were apparently cooperating in July that year, according to the department.


Water bottle restriction

In an interview, state environmental officials stood by their actions, noting that compliance can take a while to achieve.

JoAnn Kittrell, spokeswoman for the Division of Environmental Protection, said staff treated the system like it does all others.

“There’s a lot of issues across the state with naturally occurring arsenic and lead, so we just have to continue to stay vigilant and make sure systems are in compliance,” she said. “If for some reason the tests show up that they’re over action levels, we’ll take the immediate steps we need to. We just continue to monitor the best we can within our authority and be relentless.”

A doctor brought to the school in late January, when a criminal investigation was launched, told the Nye County Sheriff’s Office that it preliminarily appeared that the rashes were linked to the contaminated water.

Although arsenic and fluoride are naturally occurring contaminants, they can have side effects, said Jacimaria Batista, a UNLV professor who specializes in water and wastewater treatment.

Excess fluoride will cause deteriorated teeth, while arsenic poisoning takes time, she said.

Call me crazy, but I don't trust that inspectors aren't just seeing the same flats of bottles around or re-filled sparkletts bottles

Jennifer Carr, bureau of safe drinking water

Despite the documented history of the school’s water violations, Malcolm LaVergne, the owners’ attorney, said the case against his clients only dates back to February 2018. And he argued that the couple had been working to get their system into compliance.

February 2018 was the second time the school was put on formal notice for elevated levels of arsenic and fluoride. This time, the division placed the school on a bottled water restriction for both drinking and cooking.

That didn’t alleviate the concerns of state officials, who wondered in emails whether the school was simply refilling the bottles with tap water.

“Call me crazy, but I don’t trust that inspectors aren’t just seeing the same flats of bottles around or re-filled Sparkletts bottles,” wrote Jennifer Carr, a deputy administrator with the Division of Environmental Protection, in a January email.

The Sheriff’s Office later revealed that school officials had been limiting students to three small water bottles daily and often ran out of bottled water — sometimes going without it for up to three days.

Many former staff members also told police that empty Sparkletts bottles were brought into the kitchen, and that Patricia Chappuis had instructed staff to say they used the bottled water for cooking if anyone asked.

The property owned by Marcel and Patricia Chappuis, the married operators of Northwest Academy, in Amargosa Valley on Feb. 26, 2019. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco

But Lavergne, who visited the facility after his clients were arrested, argued that it was the “best tasting water” he’d had.

“I had no problem drinking the water,” the attorney said. “I would drink all of it. I would pour gallons of it and bring it here because it tastes great.”

On a recent April morning, the couple’s emotions brimmed as they walked through the school, reminiscing about their work. When it was time to leave, Marcel Chappuis held out his arms and scanned the school grounds.

“Now you see what we’ve lost,” he said.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter. Contact Amelia Pak-Harvey at apak-harvey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4630. Follow @AmeliaPakHarvey on Twitter.

Designed by LeeAnn Elias and Lauren Flannery. Review-Journal staff writer Jessie Bekker contributed to this report.
Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.