AMARGOSA VALLEY — Nicole Bayer remembers well the Sunday evening in May 2016 when she raced down State Line Road in her pickup truck to the private boarding school for at-risk teens and adolescents.
It had been weeks since anyone at Northwest Academy had given her an update on her 12-year-old son, and she’d had enough, the Pahrump mother recalled Saturday, two days after news broke that the school is now the subject of an ongoing child abuse investigation.
The Nye County Sheriff’s Office opened the investigation on Monday after a former student reported being “assaulted and slammed” on several occasions by teacher Caleb Hill, 29.
Hill was arrested and charged this week with child abuse, officials said. The investigation also revealed arsenic in the school’s water, resulting in skin rashes linked to the water conditions, officials have said.
The news of the investigation didn’t come as much of a shock to Bayer.
On that night in May 2016, when school officials finally released her son, Tristan Groom, his right eye was black and swollen shut, and he had a large rug-burn on the right side of his face, Bayer recounted in an interview Saturday with the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
An employee explained that the boy had gotten into an altercation with a staff member.
“He had an altercation with a staff member and you didn’t call me?” Bayer recalled yelling.
She helped her son into the truck, and the two never looked back — until Thursday evening, when details emerged about the investigation.
“I wasn’t too surprised,” Tristan, now a soft-spoken 15-year-old, said Saturday as he looked down at his hands. “It’s about time.”
On Saturday evening, Patti Chappuis, wife of Northwest Academy owner Marcel Chappuis, defended the academy in a brief phone interview.
“There have been a multitude of inaccuracies and falsities reported,” she said. “There have been no findings of abuse or neglect by Sheriff (Sharon) Wehrly or any of the licensing boards.”
On the school’s website, which had been taken down by Saturday morning, Marcel Chappuis was listed as a professional psychologist. The Nevada State Board of Psychological Examiners lists his license as active with no disciplinary record.
Patti Chappuis did not address the arsenic in the school’s water, but when asked about Hill’s charges, she said, “That doesn’t mean it’s true. He is accused.”
The Sheriff’s Office and Department of Family Services officials served a search warrant at the school Tuesday and interviewed all students and on-site staff members. In addition to reports of abuse by Hill, students also told detectives they had suffered injuries and broken bones at the school and were denied medical care. Most of the broken bones were toes.
“You’re going to speak to more families, students, staff — past and present — who will rally on our behalf,” Patti Chappuis said in response to allegations against the school and its staff.
She referred all other questions to their attorney, Richard Schonfeld, who, she said, would not be taking calls until Monday.
“Northwest Academy is doing business as usual,” she added.
The state Division of Child and Family Services made the call to allow the school to remain open, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Tristan, who has blond hair and a soft lisp when he speaks, said Saturday that he couldn’t believe the school was allowed to stay open after all that had surfaced in the past week.
He spent six months at Northwest Academy, and during that time he was allowed to call his mom just three times and saw his family twice, he said.
“I never knew if he was going to call. And they never called me to tell me what’s going on,” Bayer said, raising her voice. “I’m his mother, and they refused to give me any information.”
During her final visit before pulling Tristan out of the school, Bayer recalled, she noticed a bruise on her son’s face. She glanced at the employees present during the visit, but asked anyway: “Where did you get that bruise?”
“I don’t know. Probably during gym,” Tristan said, shrugging it off.
On Saturday, Tristan said he couldn’t remember a time that he ever felt safe enough to tell his mom what was happening at school, because his phone calls and visits were monitored. Two years later, he said he still has vivid memories of being slammed by staff members “for no reason.”
“Sometimes staff would even let other students fight each other,” he said, looking at his mom. “They wouldn’t stop it or anything. It was just fight, fight, fight. It was like their TV show.”
‘A lot of good people who work here’
At the school Saturday morning there were no signs that an investigation was underway.
From the school’s parking lot, students, who could not be seen behind a tall, white fence, could be heard talking and yelling to one another.
They were competing in a volleyball tournament, according to a shift supervisor, who identified himself only as Josh.
“I know what’s in the news is bad, but we do have a lot of good people who work here,” he said, adding that he has been working for the school for about 18 months.
From Highway 373, drivers passing through Amargosa Valley can spot the large, sandy-colored warehouse that sits on the school’s campus. It is not clear what the building is used for, but several people could be seen Saturday walking in and out of the building.
A set of stairs leading to the entrance appears to be the same staircase shown in footage released Friday evening by the Sheriff’s Office. In the video, taken at some point during the early stages of the investigation, two deputies assist an injured student wearing a large boot or cast on his foot down the stairs.
’Night and day’
Tristan’s older brother, 23-year-old Jade Gaastra, attended Northwest Academy from 2012 to 2013. The school was recommended to Bayer by Gaastra’s juvenile probation officer.
Gaastra was 17 when he completed the program, and during his time there had earned his GED. Today he has a full-time job as a supervisor with a cell tower company — a position he said he earned and is proud to hold.
So when Tristan began acting out, Bayer ultimately decided to send him to Northwest Academy, “because I thought the program did wonders for Jade,” she said Saturday.
“If I knew then what I know now …” she said. “Never again.”
Gaastra shook his head in disagreement and glanced at his brother.
He said he couldn’t recall any severe abuse when he was a student, but the school still had its problems. He criticized what he called favoritism by the staff and psychological evaluations that he alleged resulted in everyone being “doped up.”
He was prescribed Adderall for ADHD, although he said he isn’t sure he even suffers from the disorder.
Tristan was prescribed five different medications when he arrived at the school, his mother said. Bayer alleges that Tristan’s on-site doctors failed to disclose why his son needed those medications.
Tristan said his six months at the school were a haze, days blurring together until he finally refused to take the pills. He said he got in trouble, but he didn’t care. The drugs just made him feel worse.
By the time he had been taken out of the school, his mother recalled, he was withdrawn and mostly kept to himself.
“It took over a year for us to wean him off all the medications,” she said, adding that she took her son to another doctor for a second opinion, and that he no longer takes the medications once prescribed by the school.
Bayer could not recall which doctor prescribed Tristan with the medications, “because I never got to talk to him.” But she kept the pill bottles.
Bayer and her sons aren’t sure of what could have been a possible turning point for the school, because the difference between the teens’ experiences are “night and day,” Bayer said.
“I just know it’s about dang time they fall from what they’ve done,” she said.