District from which new VWSD chief hired named in lawsuit

Published 12:02 am Saturday, August 7, 2010

BATON ROUGE — The district from which the Vicksburg Warren School District’s new superintendent was hired is named in a class-action lawsuit filed this week against a Los Angeles-based company. The suit accuses the firm in a human trafficking scheme to bring hundreds of Filipino teachers to Louisiana public schools using exploitative contracts that charged them excessive, illegal fees.

Universal Placement International Inc. and its owner Lourdes Navarro are accused of racketeering and fraud in the lawsuit that the American Federation of Teachers and the Southern Poverty Law Center said they filed in a California federal court on behalf of 350 teachers.

“We were herded onto a path, a slowly constricting path, where the moment you realize that something is not right, you were already past the point of no return,” said Ingrid Cruz, one of the teachers named as a plaintiff in the case, reading from a prepared statement. Cruz teaches science and robotics classes at a Baton Rouge-area middle school.

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The lawsuit says the company illegally required the teachers to pay thousands of dollars in fees to be hired to jobs mainly in East Baton Rouge Parish, but also in Caddo, Jefferson and other parishes and in state-run schools in New Orleans.

Teachers were saddled with crippling debts, placed into shoddy housing and threatened with deportation if they complained, said Daniel McNeil, a lawyer for the AFT, equating the conditions to forced labor and indentured servitude.

“This is far closer to slavery than we should be willing to tolerate,” said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Named in the lawsuit is the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board and several current and former school system administrators, including former Superintendent Charlotte Placide. They are accused of ignoring the alleged abuses and in some cases assisting the recruiting company with illegal behavior.

“It was more than turning a blind eye,” Bauer said. “They actively participated in what was going on.”

A spokesman for the EBR Parish School System, for which VWSD’s new superintendent has worked, said the system hadn’t officially been served with the lawsuit and couldn’t respond.

“The school system values all of its employees and takes every precaution to ensure their tenure in our school district is a positive and mutually beneficial experience for the employee and the students they serve,” said Chris Trahan, EBR communications director.

Reached Friday, incoming VWSD superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Duran Swinford, who has been associate superintendent for human resources at EBR since 2003 and is concluding her service there before moving to Vicksburg, said EBR officials were notified of the suit Thursday and reiterated they had not received details.

“A few years ago we did hire about 200 teachers from the Philippines,” Swinford said. “It would appear the company was charging them fees that were exorbitant.”

Swinford said when they learned of the fees a couple of years ago, they stopped doing business with Universal Placement. “We honored the contracts that we made with the teachers,” she said, adding that EBR still employs about 180 teachers who came over from the Philippines.

“One of the things the company did say when we considered using their services was that they would secure an immediate place for them to live,” Swinford said. “We thought that was a good thing — we knew these teachers would need a place to live.”

EBR did not use the company again when questions about their tactics arose, she said.

Questions to Universal Placement International about the lawsuit were directed to a Los Angeles-based attorney who didn’t return a phone call.

Each teacher had to pay about $16,000 before ever leaving the Philippines — five times the average annual household income in the country, the lawsuit alleges. If they couldn’t afford the fees, teachers borrowed money, in many instances from lenders recommended by the recruiting firm who charged hefty interest rates, attorneys for the teachers union and law center said.

More fees and expensive legal entanglements followed once the teachers arrived in the United States, the lawsuit claims, such as contracts in which the teachers agreed to pay a percentage of their monthly income to Universal and fees for arranging housing. Passports and visas were confiscated to ensure the fees would be paid, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit — also filed against Universal’s sister operation in the Philippines, PARS International Placement Agency — seeks a refund of all fees paid by teachers and damages totaling millions.

Complaints about Universal Placement International and Navarro date back to last October, when the Louisiana Federation of Teachers filed complaints with state authorities alleging the company was operating illegally in the state and charging the teachers exorbitant fees.

In April, a judge ordered the company to refund fees that the LFT estimates will total $1.8 million.