US State Department suspends student exchange sponsor

Hundreds of high school exchange students could be affected by a State Department decision to suspend the sponsor-company that was to bring them to the United States.

A department official told The Associated Press on Thursday that Pacific Intercultural Exchange, or PIE, of San Diego was suspended from the popular exchange program on Tuesday.

The official said the agency is working with at least four foreign students now in the U.S. Other sponsoring organizations are trying to find host families for 455 students from 18 countries who had been recruited by the company, but they may have to put off their exchanges until later.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter, said PIE was suspended for "violating exchange program regulations," but wouldn't elaborate.

The State Department put the company on probation last year, reduced the number of students it could sponsor by 15 percent and ordered it to improve program administration.

A message seeking comment from PIE wasn't immediately returned Thursday. The company's website says it is a nonprofit organization that has facilitated exchanges for more than 25,000 high school students from all over the world since 1975.

The Exchange Visitor Program brings close to 30,000 high school students to the United States each year. Foreign students live with a host family and attend U.S. schools.

The program is a fun and rewarding experience for thousands of students, but it has come under some scrutiny over the years. Advocacy groups often blame the sponsoring organizations, designated by the State Department, for problems that have led to neglect and abuse of the participants, like not properly vetting host families.

Danielle Grijalva, director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, said it's rare for the State Department to suspend an organization from sponsoring students.

"I believe this action by the State Department exceeds sending a simple 'wake-up' call to its sponsors," Grijalva said. "We have nearly 30,000 high school students from across the globe anxious to come to the United States to learn more about American culture and spend thousands of dollars to do so. These students must leave our country at the end of their program with nothing less than a positive impression of the United States."

The Oregonian newspaper reported last year that a Portland lawyer filed a $2 million lawsuit on behalf of German student who claimed he was molested by the man who hosted him and that PIE approved the host father even though he had a criminal record for fraud.

The attorney, Eric Olson, did not immediately respond to a message from the AP on Thursday.

Earlier this year, AP obtained internal State Department documents that said a review by the agency last year found that 15 of its 39 "largest fee-charging" sponsors were in "regulatory noncompliance," though it didn't say what rules were violated. The memos said the State Department took steps to sever its relationship with one sponsor after the company placed a student "with a host family whose criminal background check revealed a murder conviction."

The State Department told AP in March that it had received 43 allegations of sexual abuse since the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, but it's not clear if any of those were students sponsored by PIE.

The State Department has adopted several rules designed to safeguard students in the high school program, including requiring all sponsors to photograph the exterior of the house, the kitchen and student's bedroom. Host families also must provide outside character references. Previously, family members and sponsors could be such references.

But the State Department documents also showed that the agency considered but dropped a plan to require FBI background checks similar to what are used by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts because it wasn't "feasible."