Updated February 2, 2019 - 7:32 pm
An investigation of a private boarding school in Amargosa Valley has led to the arrest of a teacher on a child abuse charge and the discovery of arsenic in the school’s water.
The Nye County Sheriff’s Office announced the findings late Friday. The office said students at the school, Northwest Academy, at 1472 S. Highway 373, have been tested for arsenic exposure.
In a videotaped statement Friday, Sgt. Adam Tippetts said detectives interviewed a former student, who described being “assaulted and slammed” by teacher Caleb Hill, 29, on several occasions.
All the students were later interviewed.
“During the course of the interviews, detectives received numerous complaints from students concerning the level of force used by Caleb,” Tippetts said. “Detectives identified instances in which staff went hands-on with students on numerous occasions. Caleb acknowledged that this tactic was against the school’s policy.”
The former student who first reported Hill “described being picked up off the ground and thrown to the floor,” Tippetts said.
Hill, a Pahrump resident, was arrested and booked into the Nye County Detention Center. He was charged with child abuse, Tippetts said.
The Sheriff’s Office first announced an investigation into Northwest Academy on Thursday night but did not provide additional details until Friday evening.
According to its website, the academy is a private boarding school near the California-Nevada border for “troubled teens and at-risk adolescents” and is monitored and licensed by the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.
It serves 228 teens ranging in age from 13 to 18, according to a 2019 resources directory published by the department. The same directory describes the school as a “licensed daycare facility” that operates 24/7.
On Friday, health officials said they are legally barred from commenting on the investigation, which began Monday when the former student described being assaulted by Hill, Tippetts said.
It was unclear how old the child was at the time of the reported assault or when the reported assault took place.
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,” Tippetts said.
In addition to reports of abuse by Hill, students also told detectives they had received injuries and broken bones at the school and were denied medical care. Most of the broken bones were toes.
It remains unclear what caused the injuries.
On Friday afternoon, the Sheriff’s Office released video footage that showed a student wearing what appeared to be a medical boot being helped down stairs by uniformed officers.
In addition to injuries, detectives determined that the school’s water was contaminated with arsenic and “other harmful substances.” Students said staffers gave them three small bottles of water a day to drink.
“Multiple juveniles reported rashes that had developed on their skin, which they believed was from showering in contaminated water,” Tippetts said.
Detectives brought medical professionals to the school to examine the students who had complained of injuries, Tippetts said. Many of the injuries required immediate medical attention. A doctor said three small bottles of water a day is “insufficient” for general hydration.
“The doctor provided a preliminary determination that the widespread rashes amongst the juveniles were linked to the contaminated water,” Tippetts said.
Tippets said Friday that the school remains open. The state Division of Child and Family Services made the call.
Police did not elaborate on what led the agency to determine that the school would stay open, but Tippetts noted that the health department had said the school is adequately staffed.
Detectives previously told some parents that the facility had been closed because of lack of staffing, Tippetts said.
Unsafe drinking water
The academy’s water is being retested for arsenic, fluoride and nitrate levels, Tippetts said.
According to information from the state Department of Environmental Protection, the last water tests at the academy, on Nov. 6, showed arsenic levels “over three times the drinking water standard,” he said.
The academy stopped treating the water around October 2016, Tippetts said.
“The Nevada Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Safe Drinking Water began attempting to work with Northwest Academy to bring the water system back into compliance with safe drinking water regulations in early 2018,” Tippetts said.
He said that the bureau had given the school a Dec. 31 deadline but that as of Monday, the academy was “still out of compliance.”
It was unclear whether the Bureau of Safe Drinking Water was working with the school between October 2016 and early 2018.
The Sheriff’s Office also executed a search warrant for hair and blood samples from students at the school “to test for arsenic and other harmful substances they may have been exposed to while housed at the Northwest Academy,” Tippetts said.
It remains unclear when the samples were taken. Parents were notified and were allowed to check on their children at the time, Tippets said.
The Department of Health and Human Services last inspected the facility during a routine visit on Sept. 7, said Paul Shubert, bureau chief for the state’s health care quality and compliance division.
During the inspection, the facility was cited for failing to meet documentation requirements for staff training and background checks, issues Shubert said are typical for child care facilities.
The boarding school also was cited for structural issues, including a broken fence door and a hole in a girl’s dorm wall, Shubert said. The school provided documentation showing that it had addressed those issues by Sept. 21.
Margot Chappel, deputy administrator for regulatory and planning services for the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, said she received notice of the investigation Tuesday from the Nye County Sheriff’s Office.
No mention of accusations
On Friday, the school’s Facebook pages and website showed no mention of the abuse accusations. A call to the school following the afternoon announcement of Hill’s arrest was not answered.
There is no school principal or school director listed on the school’s website, and there is no list of teachers, including Hill. But health department documentation lists Marcel Chappuis as the academy’s owner and director.
On the school’s website, Chappuis is listed as a professional psychologist. The Nevada State Board of Psychological Examiners lists his license as active with no disciplinary record.
Two other staff members also were named: Quade Chappuis and Norton Roitman.
Roitman, who was listed as the school’s medical supervisor, said Saturday that the information about him was outdated and that he left the school on April 30, 2017. Roitman, who provided a resignation letter to the Review-Journal, did not immediately respond to further requests for comment.
The state Board of Medical Examiners describes his scope of practice as psychiatry and child psychiatry. His license is also active with no restrictions and no disciplinary record.
The third employee, Quade Chappuis, is listed as a student coach and counselor.
“We work with troubled teens in a kind, caring and non-invasive manner,” the school’s website reads. “Northwest Academy provides a safe and secure environment for at-risk adolescents seeking to change their lives and an island of hope for families seeking to help their child.”
A previous version of this story included outdated information from the academy’s website regarding Norton Roitman’s employment status at the school.