A closed building of Stone Academy in West Haven. After the nursing school abruptly closed on Feb. 15, educational plans of hundreds of students are left in limbo. Attorney General William Tong launched an investigation into potential violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act by the for-profit organization in February. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Jennifer Mendez, a student in Stone Academy‘s licensed practical nurse program, was scheduled to take her exit exam on July 8.

Yet after nearly two years of hard work and sacrifice, she worries it was all for nothing as she waits to see if any of her credits will be counted toward completion of her LPN certification. 

Mendez, 35, is one of hundreds of students who were studying practical nursing at one of Stone Academy’s three Connecticut campuses when it abruptly closed in February and are now caught in the crossfire between the school’s lawyers and the state Office of Higher Education. 

The nursing school closed its doors amid questions about its examination passage rates, faculty qualifications and clinical training. Since then, about 850 students have been unable to obtain their transcripts while the Office of Higher Education audits the academy’s records to determine the validity of its coursework. The state is demanding that Stone pay $200,000 for that audit. 

The clash between state officials and Stone Academy has left Mendez and her classmates in limbo. Mendez, who has been working as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home for the last 10 years, said it’s a frustrating position to be in after years of spending money and time on a program that she was hoping would help her serve her patients better.

She recalled having to watch her oldest child’s high school graduation on a computer because she had a final exam that day. She missed out on time with her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, to attend classes. She says she also spent hundreds of hours in class away from her 3-year-old daughter.

That’s not including countless hours studying, doing homework or driving from her home in New London to East Hartford three times a week. 

Mendez said the school notified students of the closure on Valentine’s Day.

“While we were in class that night, they sent us an email saying the school will be closing at the conclusion of tonight’s classes,” Mendez said. “There was no information given. Nothing was told to us. We had no idea.”

It felt like the school decided it was “just done with us all,” Mendez said.

“I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to all my classmates. Me and those girls have been through so much together. We’ve cried together. We laughed. We’ve helped each other pass exams. We studied together. It’s just very heartbreaking,” Mendez said. “And then it went to anger. I drove over 30,000 miles on my new car to get to this program. I missed time with my daughter. My mother got diagnosed with breast cancer while attending this program. I couldn’t be there for her. I feel like it was all for nothing.”

Until last year, Stone Academy was owned by Mark Scheinberg, the founder and president of Goodwin University in East Hartford. He was forced last May to divest and pay $1 million to resolve allegations that Stone had concealed a high rate of student loan defaults. 

Stone now is held in a trust managed by his son-in-law, Joseph Bierbaum. Scheinberg’s brother, Richard, also is a trustee.

Stone Academy, with campus locations in East Hartford, West Haven and Waterbury, now faces a new investigation by Attorney General William Tong for potential violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act in regards to the closure.

“This is an active and ongoing investigation,” said Elizabeth Benton, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office. “We have received and are reviewing thousands of documents from our initial civil investigative demand. We have also sent two subsequent civil investigative demands and subpoenas for testimony to Stone’s leadership, specifically Richard Scheinberg and Joseph Bierbaum.”

Although its shutdown came without warning, evaluations of the school have been ongoing for several months, according to the state’s Office of Higher Education. 

State officials and lawyers for Stone sharply disagree over the chain of events preceding the closure, the legal basis for assessing attendance and qualifications of staff, and the propriety of the Office of Higher Education seizing student records.

“Indeed, most of the components of Stone’s programming now alleged to be deficient were reviewed and approved by DPH in October of 2021 and by OHE in January of 2022, when each agency separately approved Stone’s program,” wrote Perry Rowthorn, a former deputy attorney general who represents Stone. 

Rowthorn said in a letter to the attorney general’s office that “systemic dysfunction” and an “erratic regulatory process” within the Office of Higher Education contributed to Stone’s closure and the uncertainty over the value of the training provided to its students.

“To be very clear, Stone students’ transcripts are accurate. Students legitimately earned the clinical credits reflected on their transcripts,” Rowthorn wrote. “Students should be allowed without any further delay to obtain their transcripts and, if they wish, present them to other schools so they can continue their education.” 

Debate over scope and cost of audit

The Office of Higher Education tells a different story. 

Tim Larson, the former state senator who is executive director of the agency, said initial evaluations were underway because Stone Academy was set for its renewal process this year. Stone’s last approval was in January 2022 and was set to expire on Jan. 25 of this year. The Office of Higher Education typically begins its evaluations a few months prior to expiration.

On July 29, however, the Office of Higher Education began to investigate a compliance complaint from a student, including concerns regarding program issues like clinical cancellations and lack of attendance records, Larson said.

The school then underwent a hearing in the early fall with the Department of Public Health after analyzing its NCLEX scores, Larson added. 

The National Council Licensure Examination is the final test nursing students must pass at the end of their programs.

“[Schools] have to have a minimum of 80% [of students passing] and last year, … the highest score was [70]%,” Larson said. “[The Department of Public Health] asked them to explain, and they didn’t give a real solid answer. So, [the department], discontinued their East Hartford day program. In the meantime, … West Haven’s day and evening cohorts also were under some discussion.”

The Department of Public Health did not respond to questions from the CT Mirror about why the East Hartford day program was closed and West Haven’s programs were being monitored, or how many students at Stone Academy took the exam last year. 

The Office of Higher Education decided to hire a DPH investigator to help with additional evaluations of the nursing school for its renewal, according to Larson. 

By late December, the Office of Higher Education called for a “compliance conference,” Larson said, where the department highlighted eight significant violations at the school, including allegations that 20% of the school’s instructors were not qualified to teach.

“They had an opportunity to refute all of these violations … and they didn’t,” Larson said. “We could understand that during COVID, there were issues. We could understand that hiring, sometimes, was an issue. But when they didn’t refute any of this stuff? It caused us great alarm.”

The Office of Higher Education then requested an audit, so it could “understand, in the grand scheme of things, what the impact on these students was,” Larson said, adding that the audit would help determine how many credits and clinical hours students were missing and how to “facilitate a repair of their education.”

Larson said Stone Academy agreed to the request on Jan. 27, but over a week later, on Feb. 6, the school sent the Office of Higher Education a notice that it was planning to shut its doors. It did not notify students at the time. 

“They sent a letter to us that they closed. We did not close them,” Larson said. “In fact, I extended their authorization for two more months to accommodate an audit. … I [just] needed to understand what the damage was and if, in fact, they had the ability to patch this back up.”

Rowthorn insists in his communications with the attorney general’s office that the higher education office forced the closure, and its allegations, such as a claim of unqualified staff, are due to a misunderstanding of the law and the actual duties of some employees.

“OHE has failed to provide a detailed explanation for these allegations, but it is apparent that they are based on fundamental misunderstandings of fact and law,” Rowthorn wrote. “By way of example, most of the staff now claimed to be unqualified instructors were, in fact, staff hired to accompany students on observational clinical experiences after DPH specifically advised that no regulatory qualification requirements existed for such staff.”

The for-profit nursing school also initially agreed to pay for the audit that would analyze records for more than 800 of its students, but, after learning it could cost around $200,000, has been in a back-and-forth battle with the Office of Higher Education for weeks about who would pay the bill, Larson said.

In a letter to the attorney general’s office, Rowthorn said there is no legal requirement for such an audit when a school is closing and that a decision by federal education officials to cut off funding changes Stone’s finances.

“You point to previous indications of Stone’s willingness to fund an audit but ignore significant changes in circumstance since those discussions occurred,” Rowthorn wrote. “Stone’s financial ability to continue its programs, let alone to fund an audit, was significantly impaired by the United States Department of Education’s imposition of restricted cash flow status, a step we believe was likely motivated by OHE’s posture towards the school.” 

Larson said the Office of Higher Education had wanted to use the same firm that conducted an audit when Goodwin College purchased the University of Bridgeport. The $200,000 price tag would cover time and staffing.

“You have 800 students, you probably have to put two hours together per file … so that would be 1,600 hours,” Larson said. “Then they backfill however many people … they need to accomplish that. [The auditors] would also be coordinating an effort with my staff … so that every one of these Stone students has someone that they can talk to individually about what their concerns are.”

Rowthorn questioned the need for the audit and warned of its harm to students, to whom he insisted Stone is committed to assist.

“In that spirit, we will not condone — let alone fund — a misguided audit that will wipe away their hard-earned educational achievements,” Rowthorn wrote. “We urge OHE to deviate from a course that places its interests in direct conflict with those of Stone students and graduates.”

Cynthia Jennings, an attorney and political activist who says more than 20 women harmed by the closure have contacted her about possible litigation, is placing some fault for their situation on the Office of Higher Education. An audit now feels like a punishment toward the students, she said.

“The Office of Higher Education should have done an audit before they had that school open up. You should have done an audit before you took their student loan money,” Jennings said. “There’s no money that’s going to make up for what they’re going through right now. Some of them are homeless. They took off [work] and intentionally went and sacrificed time with their family, they got extra jobs, they took up all these loans. … Don’t just take their money and then turn around and say, ‘We’re going to investigate here to see if their courses were accredited.’ Why would they be accredited? They haven’t even had an opportunity to take their exams.”

Jennings called the audit “a mass issue of discrimination because most of those students are Black and brown students.”

During the first week of March, the Office of Higher Education held informational sessions for students to learn about future steps, including the ability to transfer credits to nearby institutions, tuition refunds and loan forgiveness.

“[The information sessions were] more for those that are willing to start over, and I just put in 18 months of my time. I can’t start over,” Mendez said, adding that the most important questions, especially for students who were close to graduating, went unanswered.

“The [other nursing schools] said until the Office of Higher Education releases our transcripts, and we know which classes are actually validated for the credits, they can’t do anything for us,” Mendez said. 

The audit is expected to take several months. 

“We want to look at your enrollment agreement and what you signed up for when you were supposed to graduate. We want to look at your transcript to see what classes you took and when you took them,” Larson said. “Then we need to overlay that against a credible faculty member for your classwork and the same thing for clinical work. [We’re] just straight up trying to clean up the transcript. … We’re probably going to have to interview some of the students. We’re going to have to interview some of the older faculty. … Then continue to sanitize the list, so that we make sure we have accurate data and that we’re in agreement on where the students can progress.”

Next steps for students

Larson said that there are four options for Stone Academy students.

“The first step is if they no longer pursue a practical nursing program, we would want their transcripts and find out how they were paying for it and then refund their tuition,” Larson said. 

Sean Seepersad, the division director of academic affairs at the Office of Higher Education, said most Stone Academy students were paying for the school through financial aid, so those refunds and loan discharges would be through the U.S. Department of Education.

“For students who paid tuition out of pocket, not federal financial aid, currently the statute allows for a refund of tuition from the student protection account for approved courses or units of instructions in which the student was unable to complete because of the closure of the school,” Seepersad continued.

Larson said students who were just starting their programs could restart at another school without waiting for the audit.

“[That’s mostly for students] who say ‘I’m not going to transfer anything. I started in December or January, so I really haven’t accumulated a transcript,’” Larson said.

Some students who were at the finish line, depending on what the audit concludes, may receive a certification of completion from the Office of Higher Education. But for those who were in the middle of their program and want to transfer their credits to another school, it will be a complicated process.

“If you’re taking Pell [Grant] money, you need to keep your loan default rate very low. … They have to have the wherewithal to pay this money back [if they continue their education],” Larson said. “[The transfer schools] also are rated on their own performances, and they don’t want to bring Stone students that are not prepared into their cohort and drag down their performance rating status. So it’s very, very complicated, and that’s where we are right now.”

Mendez said Lincoln Tech told her at an information session that she could pick up her education if her credits are validated. She said others, like Porter and Chester, told her that her credits would first need to be approved, then she’d have to undergo additional testing, which would determine her placement in the program, she said.

In the meantime, many students are hoping to rile up enough support to warrant intervention from lawmakers. 

“These young women are going to talk to legislators all over the state. They’re going to put pressure on them to pass them a special act so that they can go take their boards. They’re going to look for support so that they can have classes,” Jennings said. “We need to talk about how important it is that their elected officials protect them at this point.”

A protest outside the Office of Higher Education, which is based in downtown Hartford, is scheduled for March 28.

Either way, it’s a waiting game for Mendez and her fellow classmates.

“If it comes to worst-case scenario, where my credits aren’t validated at all, there’s Three Rivers Community College over by my house, and I figure I’ll just go to night school there and skip the LPN and go for the RN,” Mendez said. “I’ll just start over and go higher because that was originally my goal. So now I’m like, ‘Well, if none of this counts, and none of this matters, I’ll find a school closer to home, and I’ll just go that route.’”

And even though Mendez has a back-up plan, that doesn’t mean it will make the process, or the uncertainty behind it, any easier, especially if she needs to start all over again.

“[The last few months have been] countless nights of me staying up — falling asleep — on the couch with my laptop … or fights with everybody, because I’m not there, and I can’t do anything for anybody because I’m always so tired from working and going to school,” Mendez said. “It’s hard because now my daughter is getting used to me being home all the time. And when I start a program again, it’s going to be heartbreaking for her because, ‘Where’s mommy? Why isn’t mommy home?’ … [I’ll] never have time for everybody.”

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.