Officials took steps to shut down an Amargosa Valley boarding school Wednesday after the owner and his wife were arrested in Las Vegas as part of an ongoing abuse investigation.
Marcel Chappuis, 72, a professional psychologist who owns Northwest Academy, and his 66-year-old wife, Patricia, each face 43 counts of allowing child abuse or neglect. They operated the school for at-risk teens and adolescents.
Most of the counts stem from an investigation into the school’s tap water, which officials have said contains high levels of arsenic, but Patricia Chappuis also faces two felony counts of child abuse or neglect in connection with “previous physical altercations with students,” Nye County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Adam Tippetts said Wednesday.
The contaminated water was discovered while the Sheriff’s Office was investigating unrelated allegations of child abuse against staff member Caleb Hill, 29, by a former employee and a former student. Hill was arrested Jan. 29 on suspicion of child abuse, but formal charges had not been filed in Beatty Justice Court as of Wednesday afternoon.
Investigators determined that the Northwest Academy’s water had been contaminated for more than two years, and that school officials had been limiting students to three small water bottles daily.
But the school often ran out of bottled water, sometimes going without it for up to three days, Tippetts said.
“Even during the hot summer months, students were either required to drink the tap water or nothing at all,” he said, noting that students also drank the tap water when they were given their medications.
Patricia Chappuis also instructed staff to cook and clean with the contaminated tap water, witnesses told detectives.
“They also reported the empty Sparkletts bottles were brought into the kitchen and staff were told that if anyone asked if they used the bottled water for cooking, that they were to tell them yes,” Tippetts said.
Las Vegas arrests
News of the two additional arrests in the case broke early Wednesday, after the Metropolitan Police Department, which was assisting the Sheriff’s Office, announced that it had taken a man and woman with felony warrants for child abuse into custody just before 11:55 p.m. Tuesday in the 7600 block of Painted Dunes Drive.
Metro later identified the pair as Marcel and Patricia Chappuis. A knock at the door of the Painted Dunes home, which sits in a gated community with its own golf course near West Ann Road and North Durango Drive, was not answered Wednesday afternoon.
The couple’s connection to the home was unclear, as the two are known to live in a home on the school’s property. Records show that the Las Vegas home is owned by a limited liability company in Lakeway, Texas.
In a brief phone interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal days after Hill’s arrest, Patricia Chappuis defended the academy, saying, “There have been a multitude of inaccuracies and falsities reported. There have been no findings of abuse or neglect by Sheriff (Sharon) Wehrly or any of the licensing boards.”
She declined to address the arsenic in the school’s water during that interview or the other allegations that had surfaced by then.
Lawyer Richard Schonfeld, who is representing both the school and the couple, declined to comment Wednesday afternoon.
But in a Feb. 4 statement, he said, “We ask that the public not rush to judgment as we are confident that the investigative process will reveal that Northwest Academy’s goal is to provide a safe and productive environment for its students.”
The Division of Public and Behavioral Health said Wednesday that the school would surrender its child care license after all students were relocated.
“The individuals arrested do not provide direct supervision of the children currently onsite,” the division said in a statement. “Northwest Academy staff are working to move children to alternative placements as soon as possible. DCFS is assisting with finding alternative placements for the children currently onsite at NWA.”
DCFS refers to the Division of Child and Family Services.
A notification of the contaminated water was sent to parents on Dec. 13, according to an email obtained by the Review-Journal. It stated that the contamination was detected Nov. 6 and was caused by “erosion of natural deposits; runoff from orchards; runoff from glass and electronics production wastes.”
But, according to a state Division of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, Northwest Academy stopped treating its water in October 2016, and had been working with the agency since January 2017 to treat its water.
The school’s water supply contained 0.032 milligrams per liter of arsenic, three times the EPA’s recommended 0.01 milligrams per liter, though that falls below the EPA’s former cutoff of 0.05 milligrams per liter.
The school was given a formal notice in February 2018 that it would need to treat the water by Dec. 31, but the school missed the deadline.
‘It’s about time’
Since the announcement of the ongoing abuse investigation, several allegations from former students and their parents have surfaced, including from 13-year-old Tanner Reynolds, whose mother pulled him out of the school in January after hearing from other mothers about incidents at the school.
Tanner now alleges that he was slammed and pinned to the ground by Hill on one occasion in December.
Brothers Tristan Groom, 15, and Jade Gaastra, 23, spoke out against the school the morning after the Sheriff’s Office announced the investigation.
Tristan, who was 12 when he attended the school, alleged that the abuse had been going on since at least late 2015. His older brother, who was 17 when he was a student from 2012 to 2013, accused the school’s staff of favoritism but said he could not recall any instances of severe abuse during his time there.
On Wednesday, the boys’ mother, Nicole Bayer, was celebrating the news that Marcel and Patricia Chappuis had been arrested.
“It’s about time. I always knew something was up,” she told the Review-Journal.
Marcel and Patricia Chappuis were being held Wednesday at the Clark County Detention Center on $100,000 bail. Jail records show Patricia Chappuis was booked under the name “Patricia Mathis.”
The couple’s initial appearance in Las Vegas Justice Court is scheduled for Thursday morning. Tippetts said they are expected to be extradited to the Nye County Detention Center in Pahrump within the next week.
Hill remained at the Nye County Detention Center, where he is awaiting arraignment, jail records show.
In addition to issues surrounding the school’s tap water, the Division of Public and Behavioral Health found in March 2017 during one of its biannual inspections of the school that staff never reported an incident two months earlier in which two students were found in the gym “having sexual contact,” according to a report of the division’s findings.
The inspector also observed that the school was not meeting daily nutritional needs for each of its students, as fruits and vegetables were not being provided during lunch, the document stated. Northwest Academy appointed a “kitchen manager” as a result “to ensure that the appropriate inventory is available.”
That same inspection also led to the school implementing a “daily shift change report,” after the inspector conducted a review of the school’s records and found that Marcel Chappuis failed to maintain counseling or therapy case notes “for students with self-harming behaviors,” according to the document.
In case you missed it
For more coverage on this case, see the Feb. 6, Feb. 8 and Feb. 13 editions of the Pahrump Valley Times or go to pvtimes. com