Students Are Fighting Back Against Shuttered Connecticut Nursing Diploma Mill Stone Academy
- Former students of Stone Academy in Connecticut continue their fight to cancel or recoup their school expenses, asking a state court for $20 million in restitution.
- In an October hearing that was part of the student’s class action lawsuit against the school, Stone Academy co-owner Joseph Bierbaum spoke for the first time since the school closure in February.
- Connecticut Attorney General William Tong has filed an amended complaint, alleging that school revenue increased from $1.8 million to $3 million, even as student education suffered.
In a precipitous fall from grace, owners of Stone Academy, a for-profit nursing school in Connecticut, were forced to divest and close the school's doors February 14, after the Connecticut attorney general's office initiated an investigation into the school's academic and financial records.
Now, former nursing students are fighting back as well.
On November 3, a group of students sued school officials for a prejudgement remedy of $20 million, claiming the school violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, citing poor NCLEX pass rates, unqualified faculty, and placing personal financial interests over those of students, among other allegations.
On November 20, Stone Academy's former leaders argued the amount was excessive, arguing the students' case was too weak to merit such a remedy.
A few things are clear in the case: As a result of the closure, roughly 850 licensed practical nursing (LPN) students were left in the lurch, unable to obtain even a simple transcript as the status of their loans remained up in the air. Students at the beginning of the program could restart at another school without waiting for the audit, but those in the middle or end of their program were not as lucky.
On October 23, Attorney General Tong expanded the case and filed an amended complaint that detailed how the owners of Stone Academy siphoned off millions of dollars from the school while simultaneously failing to deliver a reputable, high-quality education.
“Our amended complaint shows how Stone’s owners systematically siphoned millions of dollars from Stone, leaving the school financially incapable of living up to its promises,” said Tong in the complaint. “Stone Academy promised an education that would position students to become Licensed Practical Nurses in less than two years, with hands-on training from industry leaders. The evidence shows otherwise."
Students are not taking the matter lying down, either, filing a class-action suit against Stone Academy leaders for taking payments while failing to provide an education and reputable diplomas.
While most are waiting to have their school loans discharged or refunded, others are lamenting the time away from family and the energy spent that will not reap any rewards in the form of a diploma. Many such students have taken to social media to sound off in recent weeks and months.
The Stone Academy Diploma Mill Scandal: What Is a Diploma Mill and What Happened?
According to the U.S. Department of Education, a diploma mill is an institution that offers a degree, diploma, or certificate for a fee and requires little to no education or coursework in exchange. Additionally, diploma mills are typically not accredited or associated with an institution of higher education.
Initially, the Connecticut attorney general's office claimed that the school ignored their civil investigative demands that they hand over records on the school's marketing practices, faculty qualifications, finances, and accreditation.
“I interviewed to be a nursing instructor there, and it was super sketchy! The state says you have to have 3 years’ experience as a nurse to teach. At that point in time, I didn’t have 3 years experience,” wrote hether2783 on Instagram. “They were like, “Well, you could just sort of take over some classes, and we just wouldn’t tell anyone that you were the instructor.” I didn’t end up taking the job, and thank goodness now that I’m reading this."
The amended complaint filed in October demonstrated how, amidst the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stone Academy’s enrollment increased and their revenues grew from roughly $660,000 per year in 2019 to well over $3 million in 2020 and 2021. Yet, the students did not benefit. While the academy's nursing exam pass rates fell, the owners were paid nearly $5 million for 2020 and 2021.
Meanwhile, student fees increased from $1.8 million in 2018 to more than $3 million in 2021 but the students didn't receive books and instead were handed copied handouts.
During that time, Joseph Bierbaum, the owner of Stone Academy in Connecticut, purchased a $1.4 million, 9,000-square-foot home and the academy spent over $100,000 per year on three vehicles that were driven by “Stone insiders.”
Bierbaum spoke publicly for the first time since the school closed in testimony in a prejudgement remedy hearing as part of a lawsuit brought by eight former Stone Academy students.
“As a 25% owner, did you think you owed any obligation to the students of Stone Academy for their welfare?” asked David Slossberg, an attorney representing the Stone Academy students.
“Yes, since I started,” Bierbaum replied.
In other words, Bierbaum believes that his obligations to the students of Stone Academy were met after taking over the administration of the school until it closed in February. In late 2022, the Connecticut Office of Higher Education notified Stone Academy in Connecticut there had been potential compliance issues, including invalid clinical hours, under-certified teachers, and substandard test scores.
While on the stand, Bierbaum said several times that the Office of Higher Education did not provide the school with enough information for them to investigate.
What Are Students Doing to Fight Back?
Former Stone Academy students filed a class action lawsuit against the nursing school in 2023, which was separate from the lawsuit filed by the state Attorney General's office. The students alleged a breach of contract and violations against the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.
The prejudgment remedy hearing was the first step in the student’s lawsuit in open court. The amended complaint from the Connecticut Attorney General's office alleges that in addition to distributions that were roughly $5 million, the owners used Stone Academy to fund other businesses.
Assets from the Academy were used to secure mortgages for other entities. The school also loaned over $400,000 to Sound Education for the down payment on property owned by the University of Bridgeport and subsequently leased to Paier College, another entity owned by Stone owners.
The amended complaint also notes that Stone Academy did not hire qualified teachers, provided a fraction of the clinical hours required, and the clinical experiences were often invalid, such as students doing temperature screenings for Stone Academy and Paier College.
Finally, at the direction of Joseph Bierbaum, the Academy stopped tracking student attendance. Thus far, 727 people have joined a private Facebook page dedicated to finding justice for Stone Academy Students.
“This was the absolute worst experience ever! From teachers walking out during class, or teachers being walked out for sticking up for students because they knew what was going on was pure bs!” wrote iamshaysimone on Instagram.
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