Education

Firm promises free counseling for students. The therapy comes with many costs, lawsuit says

Buffalo Middle School students makes their way to the school bus loading zone at the end of the school day in this file photo.
Buffalo Middle School students makes their way to the school bus loading zone at the end of the school day in this file photo. Bradenton Herald

Three company executives pitched an incredible deal to the School Board of Manatee County in April: therapy for at-risk students at no cost to the district or students’ families.

The pitch was made just two weeks after former employees filed a lawsuit against Motivational Coaches of America, or MCUSA, claiming the behavioral health company owes thousands of dollars in unpaid salaries. Three people filed the lawsuit, and more than a dozen others have since joined as plaintiffs.

The company could not be reached for comment.

At its meeting on Tuesday, the school board will decide whether to accept an agreement with MCUSA. It would put therapists in every secondary school except Johnson Middle, according to the meeting agenda.

Board Chair Scott Hopes said he is aware of allegations first reported by the Palm Beach Post, mainly that unpaid salaries, high turnover and poor communication are causing problems for other Florida school districts.

“One of the worst things you can do for a child that’s in need of behavioral and mental health counseling is to have high turnover of therapists,” Hopes said.

Nine school districts responded to an inquiry by the Bradenton Herald, and four have decided to either break ties with MCUSA or not renew their agreements.

A spokeswoman for Palm Beach County schools declined to comment, but district records show a pattern of concerns leading up to the termination of its contract with MCUSA.

One document said 12 therapists resigned in February, and another said therapists were concerned about “miscommunication, inconsistent practices and lack of clinical supervisory support.”

School officials held a three-hour meeting with the company’s chief executive officer, Julio Avael, at a Duffy’s Sports Grill on Feb. 26, followed by an emergency phone conference a day later. MCUSA later said it would fix the issue by targeting schools with a high number of at-risk students, and by staying in touch with school principals.

“We wish we could commit to a zero turnover rate, but we all know people change jobs all the time,” MCUSA stated in its recovery plan.

The school board, however, terminated their agreement on June 20.

Pasco County Schools terminated its agreement with MCUSA in a letter dated April 24. Though they were happy with the service, school administrators experienced high turnover among therapists, according to an email from district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe.

A spokeswoman for Orange County said the district would hire its own staff under a new public safety law, eliminating the need for other services. And Nadine Drew, a spokeswoman for Broward County Public Schools, said high turnover led the district to avoid renewal with MCUSA.

The company also listed Lee County as one of its partnered districts in a Feb. 16 news release, two days after the high school massacre in Parkland. It seems the district has no history with the company.

“We did not have any communication or outreach with MCUSA,” district spokesman Rob Spicker said in an email.

A ‘harmful business model’

Unpaid salaries resulted in high turnover, leading to the turmoil some students and therapists are now facing, according to a former employee.

Ashleigh Acker wrote an email to Palm Beach administrators on Feb. 26, warning them of MCUSA’s “harmful business model.” She declined to comment for this story.

“The children have opened up to us, sharing their deepest concerns, and giving us their trust, only for us to disappear from their lives without warning,” she wrote. “Many of the students that we serve have experienced trauma, losses, and caregivers disappearing on them because of incarceration or deportation.”

She is one of nearly 20 plaintiffs on a lawsuit against the company and eight of its executives. The suit alleges MCUSA violated federal law by not paying its staff.

The complaint also said MCUSA committed fraud by classifying its therapists as independent contractors, not employees, thus avoiding certain taxes.

Its employees allegedly worked 50 to 60 hours per week and received little to no pay. Their work day continued outside of school hours, when they talked with parents and logged notes into a company system.

One employee counseled dozens of kids but only received credit for three “sponsored” students, the suit said, adding that sponsored students are covered by an accepted insurance plan. MCUSA is accused of not paying the employee for any of his work.

Though credit is only awarded for work with sponsored students, therapists are required to help all students who join the program. Therapists earn “engagement points” — worth $3.12 each — for the time spent with each student, according to the complaint.

It said one hour amounts to four points per student, and that 69 points is the daily goal for each therapist, amounting to about $215.

The lawsuit alleges MCUSA never paid its employees for their work with sponsored students. The company notified one employee that it overpaid her $4,914, though she was never paid at all, and it paid another employee $1,018 for more than three months of service, according to the complaint.

“There are coaches who cannot pay their bills or feed their families,” Acker wrote in her February email. “Others are getting eviction notices and warnings about utilities being cut off.”

MCUSA filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on June 25. It said the complaint is devoid of facts or details, and that it failed to demonstrate why MCUSA therapists are employees and not independent contractors.

The motion further explained that allegations of fraud should include the specific time, place and manner in which the alleged deceit took place.

And, even if the coaches were misrepresented as contractors, there is no proof of intentional wrongdoing, the motion said. It also said the lawsuit failed to make a connection between company executives and the supervision of former employees.

“It is improbable and possibly impossible that ten different parties have direct responsibility for the supervision of one alleged employee,” it states.

‘Sometimes things work’

MCUSA offers an attractive business model in a state where districts are required to have increased mental health services in the upcoming school year.

The company touts a completely free service — families won’t even see a copay, said Frances Allegra, the senior vice president for MCUSA. She stood alongside Paul Rendulic, the company’s chief academic officer, during their presentation to Manatee’s school board on April 24. Both are defendants in the pending lawsuit.

“We really view ourselves as an education company first, that just happens to be providing mental health services to the most needy kids in your district,” Rendulic said during the presentation.

To destigmatize mental health care, the company adopted a sports theme for its program. MCUSA uses the word “coaches” instead of therapists. It doesn’t offer treatment plans, but rather “game plans,” and counseling sessions are referred to as “team sessions.”

Through a partnership with statewide health insurance plans, the company offers its program to students and their families, who receive the services as a member benefit.

Rendulic said the program often improves students’ attendance, performance and family relationships.

Manatee first connected with MCUSA after former Superintendent Diana Greene learned of a free program for students. She directed Wylene Herring-Cayasso, director of exceptional student education, to research the company.

She was impressed with the company’s novel approach to counseling, and its existing relationships around Florida. Herring-Cayasso said MCUSA would also help the district meet new mandates under the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.

When asked about high turnover among the company’s therapists, Herring-Cayasso said the issue exists outside of MCUSA, too.

“Even in the district, you have psychologists and social workers,” she said. “They retire, they leave kids or they’ve got to move because the spouse gets another job. You have classroom teachers who come and go.”

Dozens of school districts are fighting for therapists, she said, and the agreement with MCUSA can be severed with 30 days notice if anything goes wrong.

She first notified Greene of allegations against the company, and then Cynthia Saunders, the current superintendent. Herring-Cayasso went on to explain that MCUSA leaders were responsive to her concerns.

“Sometimes things work in one district and they don’t in another,” she said.

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