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Published in Print: January 21, 2004, as Nebraska Judge Closes Alternative Schools

Nebraska Judge Closes Alternative Schools

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At the request of Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, a Nebraska judge has temporarily blocked an alternative high school aimed at Spanish-speaking immigrants from soliciting or enrolling any students in the state.

A lawsuit filed by Mr. Bruning last month alleges that the California Alternative High School, which is based in Lomita, Calif., deceived Hispanics in Nebraska into thinking they were going to receive valid high school diplomas after paying the school $575 and attending 30 hours of classes.

The school opened branches last year in Lincoln and Omaha, Neb., as well as Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is just east of Omaha. The judge's injunction applies only to the school's operations in Nebraska.

Last week, though, it was unclear if the California Alternative High School was still operating outside of Nebraska. Efforts to reach the school's owner, Daniel A.D. Gossai, at the Lomita school were unsuccessful.

Jon Bruning

The Jan. 7 temporary injunction issued by Judge J. Patrick Mullen of the District Court of Douglas County in Nebraska prohibits the school from operating in Nebraska until the court can rule on the merits of the case. A hearing for a permanent injunction is set for March 15.

State officials caught wind of the alleged misdoing thanks to concerned citizens.

The Rev. Ron Den Hartog, a missionary with Christ for the City International in Omaha, with his wife, Amelia, spread the word that they believed the school to be a scam. The school "was preying on some of the most vulnerable people in society," he said last week.

The Den Hartogs have a list of at least 132 Hispanic students who attended the school at several sites either in Omaha or Council Bluffs. Many of the students, they say, were undocumented immigrants and had little knowledge about what constitutes a solid high school curriculum.

"People come here hoping to fulfill the American dream, get a good job, make more money. They had a certain dream that they could advance themselves through this program," added Mr. Den Hartog. Instead, he said the students were told that universities would accept diplomas from the school, when in fact none of the local universities did.

"Luckily, people were proactive in contacting us," said Leslie C. Levy, an assistant attorney general for Nebraska.

Alleged Misrepresentation

According to the attorney general's lawsuit, Ernesto Gomez ran the school's branches in Nebraska.

When reached by telephone in Nebraska last week, Mr. Gomez, speaking in Spanish, said that he couldn't comment on the situation. But he noted that he had attended the school in California and had believed it to be legal. "I'm not the owner of the school," he added, and explained he had solicited students for the school in Nebraska.

The Den Hartogs say that Mr. Gomez tried to earn the support of churches in Omaha through an alliance of evangelical pastors of which they are members. According to the couple, when the pastoral group told Mr. Gomez it wouldn't support his school, he made contact with pastors individually and succeeded in opening up programs in several churches.

Attorney General Bruning's lawsuit accuses the school of violating Nebraska laws pertaining to conduct in trade or commerce. The school's alleged deceptive practices, according to the suit, include claiming that its teachers were certified to teach in Nebraska and California when they were not, and saying the school was recognized by the state of California and the federal government when it was not.

The lawsuit says that at the end of the school's 10-week program, the school "routinely held a cap-and-gown ceremony complete with keynote speakers, creating the false impression that students were receiving an authentic high school diploma." The cost of the program, the lawsuit says, included the rental of the caps and gowns for the ceremony.

The practice of requiring students to rent caps and gowns raised red flags for Holly Burns, the director of the Hispanic Community Center in Lincoln. Last summer, she was the first person to get in touch with Mr. Bruning's office with suspicions that the California Alternative High School was a dubious enterprise.

Ms. Burns said that she's seen Spanish-speaking immigrants become victims of schemes that range from being charged for filling out job applications to paying for worthless identification cards. In addition, it's common for Spanish-speaking immigrants to be cheated by people who falsely pose as immigration lawyers, she said.

The ability of the California Alternative High School to recruit immigrants shows, she said, "that people are desperate for an education, empowerment."

Vol. 23, Issue 19, Page 3

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