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

Attorney General William Tong announced Thursday that the state will sue Stone Academy, a private Connecticut nursing school that abruptly shut down in February, its owner Joseph Bierbaum and an art college also under Bierbaum’s ownership.

Tong claims Bierbaum took the tuition of hundreds of nursing students and used it to promote Paier College of Art, a private institution in Bridgeport. He also alleges that Bierbaum’s operations had numerous violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.

“While students suffered from plummeting exam pass rates, disappearing clinical opportunities, and a dearth of qualified faculty, Stone’s owners got rich,” Tong said. “Stone’s so-called ‘dedicated’ staff were also running Paier and in one instance Bierbaum’s own home improvement contracting business. This was not a victimless scam. Stone students took on thousands of dollars in debt and spent hundreds of hours away from their families and jobs to become nurses and improve their lives.”

Tong’s office said they’re “seeking civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation,” which they expect to add up to “many millions of dollars, in addition to the disgorgement of all revenues, profits and gains achieved through such acts and practices.” 

The Attorney General’s Office also requested for the court to “attach multiple millions of dollars of Stone’s and Bierbaum’s assets during the pendency of this litigation.”

“This would prevent the defendants from offloading or shifting resources to evade accountability,” a news release from Tong’s office said. “Stone’s day of reckoning is here — we’re demanding millions of dollars in penalties and restitution for students.”

Perry Rowthorn, the attorney representing Stone Academy, called the lawsuit “baseless,” and reiterated his previous claim that state efforts continue to hurt students.

“Remarkably, fully five months after Stone’s closure, the Office of Higher Education has still not organized a teach out and continues to hold students’ educations hostage while it conducts an illegal audit aimed at disenfranchising students of their lawfully earned credits,” Rowthorn said in a written statement. “The agencies actually responsible for regulating Stone — OHE and the Department of Public Health (DPH) — have never substantiated the phantom regulatory violations alleged in the Attorney General’s lawsuit. Those agencies have completely bungled their regulatory responsibilities, approving programs and practices at issue in the lawsuit, misreading regulations and repeatedly in the last months altering their positions on applicable regulatory requirements.”

The back and forth battle between the state and Stone Academy has been ongoing since February when the nursing school closed its doors amid questions about its examination passage rates, faculty qualifications and clinical training. 

It’s something students say is “the biggest insult.”

“I have left three voicemails with the attorney general, no one calls me back. I’ve left four messages for voicemails, plus two emails with the Office of Higher Ed [and they] won’t contact me back,” said Justin Cullipher, who enrolled at Stone Academy in 2020. “I’m livid. I made a decision to go to a school for $36,000. This doesn’t just involve me, this is mine and my husband’s finances, and we’re new homeowners, and we tacked on $36,000 in an education that we were hoping was going to pay off for respectful career in nursing. … I am just so tired of nobody taking accountability.”

Cullipher and about 850 other students have been waiting in limbo for an audit that was to determine the validity of their transcripts. The $200,000 audit, which was supposed to be completed in June, remains ongoing and students say they have not yet received their records, nor answers from the Department of Public Health or Office of Higher Education. 

“I am so beyond frustrated because they’re treating us exactly like Stone Academy did — the no communication, constantly waiting, the no respect for people,” Cullipher said.

The Office of Higher Education told the CT Mirror Thursday that they’ve “been preparing the students’ audit results for release and will be distributing them very soon,” but did not provide a date, nor answer questions about why the audit is over a month behind schedule, how close the audit is to completion or how many transcripts are missing.

Cullipher said he’s followed up about his transcript for weeks. He was told it was missing, but hasn’t been provided any other updates since.

“I’ve accepted the fact I’m not going to be an LPN,” Cullipher said. “And no one seems to care … because if anyone actually cared about us, we wouldn’t still be here months later just to get transcripts. I grew up in the state and I’ve seen issues at UConn and Southern Connecticut and Central. Things get resolved quicker when you have money and that’s how a lot of us feel. And it hurts me to even hear myself have to say those things because I’ve never been one to say or speak like that, but at this point, that’s how a lot of us feel. We’ve been nice. We’ve been patient. It’s embarrassing.”

Shortly after the school shut down, Tong’s office launched an investigation of Stone Academy for potential violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act. Tong has also filed two court orders claiming that the former nursing school and its officials have not provided all requested data and documents.

Tong’s office said the school has partially complied with the civil investigative demand, which asked for Stone’s records regarding tuition, marketing practices, faculty qualifications, accreditation materials and student complaints. Tong also said the owners of the nursing school ignored civil investigative demands regarding their knowledge of the school’s academic and financial records.

In early May, attorneys for eight former Stone Academy students filed a class action lawsuit against the nursing school. 

State lawmakers also worked to grant Stone Academy students some financial relief earlier this session through the state budget which allotted $150,000 in stipends for graduates of the school and gives the Office of Higher Education access to the student protection fund to reimburse tuition costs to students who were still studying at the time of its closure.

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.