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December 27, 2023

Stone Academy students sue CT health, higher ed departments

YEHYUN KIM | CT MIRROR 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.

Nearly a dozen former Stone Academy students filed a federal class action lawsuit against officials in the state’s Office of Higher Education and Department of Public Health Tuesday, alleging that the departments violated their 14th amendment rights. 

The lawsuit alleges that Stone Academy students were deprived of the rights to their academic credits and degrees without due process of law and that the “defendants have made defamatory statements about the education and preparedness of Plaintiffs and their abilities to competently and safely practice as LPNs.”

OHE Commissioner Timothy Larson, OHE Division Director of Academic Affairs Sean Seepersad, DPH Commissioner Manisha Juthani and Chris Andresen, DPH’s section chief for practitioner licensing and investigations, are listed as defendants in the lawsuit. 

“Individually, and in concert with one another, [the defendants] deprived plaintiffs of their property rights in academic credits earned by them and awarded while enrolled in the practical nursing program at Stone Academy,” the lawsuit read. “Defendants’ illegal … conduct has denied plaintiffs the fruits of their hard work, forever tarnished their professional reputations, and interfered with their pursuit of career advancement in the nursing field.”

Stone Academy closed its doors in February amid questions about the numbers of students passing final nursing exams, faculty qualifications and students’ clinical training. For months, about 850 students were unable to obtain their transcripts while the Office of Higher Education audited the academy’s records to determine the validity of its coursework. 

When the audit came back in the summer, the Office of Higher Education determined that fewer than 140 students were eligible for a teach-out plan, a 10-month program that would allow them to obtain their certificates. The majority of students were left with the options of starting over at another nursing school or quitting their studies completely.

“Plaintiffs had no involvement in, and no ability to appeal the audit. Defendants thereby denied Plaintiffs, and members of the putative class, their property rights in these credits, including their ability to use them in pursuit of becoming licensed practical nurses,” the lawsuit read. 

“Defendants had no legal basis, nor was it otherwise authorized in either statute or regulation, to retroactively declare invalid credits that had been conferred upon Plaintiffs by Stone Academy while Stone Academy was authorized by Defendants to operate,” the lawsuit added. “The audit itself was also based on criteria that was unsupported in any statute or regulation, most blatantly the conclusion that credits could be invalidated merely because Stone Academy had failed to keep records that were satisfactory to DPH and OHE. … Several Plaintiffs and members of the putative class never received their audited transcripts, de facto invalidating all of the credits those students earned.”

The lawsuit also alleges that the Department of Public Health “overreached,” when it asked recent Stone Academy graduates, who also passed their national nursing exam, to enroll in a “refresher course.” The request, sent out in early spring, added if the graduate didn’t enroll, there was a possibility for investigation to ensure the graduate had the proper credentials to practice.

“Defendant Andresen, in a public webinar, in response to Stone Academy graduates inquiring why they cannot receive their licenses despite passing the NCLEX, said ‘there’s two components to being licensed [as an LPN], one is the successful completion of a program approved by the Board of Examiners for Nursing, and the second one is passing the NCLEX exam.’ At all time for these graduates, Stone Academy was an approved program. Mr. Andresen falsely implied otherwise,” the lawsuit said. “Despite DPH’s claim, the process was hardly voluntary, as it was made under threat of investigation. … This after-the-fact overreach severely damaged all of the Plaintiffs, whose accomplishments at Stone Academy, passage of the NCLEX, and professional licenses were diminished and stigmatized, and their reputations forever tarnished.”

Spokespeople for the Department of Public Health and the Office of Higher Education declined to comment.

Earlier this month, a state Superior Court judge ruled that Stone Academy students are “likely to prevail” on claims of unfair trade practices and breach of contract in a lawsuit against the forming nursing school’s owners. The judge also indicated she would certify the suit brought by eight students as a class action on behalf of hundreds.

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