— Connecticut requested license applicants of Stone Academy program complete a “refresher course”
Shannon Firth, Washington Correspondent, MedPage Today
December 29, 2023
Former students of a now-shuttered for-profit nursing school in Connecticut have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that two state agencies invalidated their course credits, withheld licenses, and damaged their professional reputations.
The nine former students of Stone Academy — which closed suddenly earlier this year and has been subject to state investigations ever since — claim that Connecticut’s Office of Higher Education (OHE) and Department of Public Health (DPH) violated their rights by invalidating their academic credits. The students’ lawsuit also charged that the agencies “forever tarnished their professional reputations and interfered with their pursuit of career advancement in the nursing field.”
The school offered practical nursing programs at three campuses in the state. Five months after the school’s closure in February, state agencies published an audit of the former students’ records. OHE’s “unauthorized” audit, according to the lawsuit, deemed 76% of the plaintiffs’ more than 100,000 credit hours to be invalid.
“What the state did here was — rather than be helpful to these students — they took a bad situation and made it exponentially worse,” said David Slossberg, JD, a lawyer in Milford, Connecticut, who is representing the former students.
Credits were deemed invalid due to missing information on clinical attendance sheets, such as omitting instructor names, and for exceeding the student-to-instructor ratio, among other reasons. Museum visits and writing assignments were also “likely” granted in place of clinical hours in some instances, noted the final report.
According to Slossberg, OHE and DPH in January discussed an audit with Stone Academy to help it “get its act together,” but then in February the school decided to close instead.
“That should have been the end of it,” but instead the agencies “went rogue,” did the audit themselves, and have “forever stigmatized … the professional reputations of these students who worked hard and earned these credits,” he said, adding that the students were not afforded the right of appeal.
In addition to its audit of “active” students, the agency also targeted graduates, Slossberg said.
A DPH document from April noted that a state review of the school’s practical nurse program “revealed several educational concerns that call into question whether recent graduates from Stone Academy received the learning and training experiences required to practice successfully as a licensed practical nurse (LPN).”
To that end, the document announced a “free training refresher course” for all of the school’s LPN license applicants. It states that the DPH is required by law to issue an LPN license to applicants who pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). However, the document notes that “given the issues with the Stone Academy program,” students are requested to sign a “stipulated agreement” stating that they essentially won’t use their license before completing the refresher course.
Connecticut “didn’t have the authority to do any of this,” said Slossberg, who claimed that the students were asked to sign the documents “under the threat of investigation.”
“The NCLEX … is the nationally accepted standard, adopted by all the states, for testing those nursing students to assure that they can practice competently and safely as entry-level practical nurses,” he said.
Approximately 200 students who received their degree from Stone Academy were planning to take the NCLEX or had already taken it, according to Slossberg, and of those, “the state has indicated that it has opened 50 investigations for students who would not sign the stipulation.”
According to the lawsuit, students who did sign the agreement and took the NCLEX in March were forced to wait months for employment because the only available “refresher course” was in October.
In a prior lawsuit filed in May, former students represented by Slossberg sued Stone Academy’s parent company Career Training Specialists and the school’s owners to hold them accountable for “predatory and unconscionable conduct.”
Despite knowing that it “could not adequately provide accredited courses and clinical experiences to its students. Stone Academy continued enrolling students before abruptly closing its doors,” the lawsuit stated.
In early December, the students were granted $5 million in a prejudgment trial remedy, according to NBC Connecticut.
Asked whether it was unusual to be suing both state officials and the owners of the academy, Slossberg told MedPage Today, “We’re just trying to go after the folks who were in positions of trust, who dropped the ball, and that’s what this second suit is about.”
According to Slossberg, approximately 1,200 students have been impacted by the audit and stipulated agreement.
The OHE has a fund for reimbursing students of about $263,000, which is expected to be distributed in 2024, Slossberg said. “But it doesn’t nearly address the harm that was done to the students.”
Noele Kidney, a public information officer for the OHE, told MedPage Today that the agency denies the allegations and will “defend the agency’s actions in court.”
A spokesperson for the DPH said the agency has no comment at this time.