Special Reports

Students’ struggles complicate claims

If a class-action lawsuit against the Business Computer Training Institute goes to trial, the outcome might hinge on what jurors think of people like Anita Wright.

She’s a 22-year-old high school dropout and ex-convict. She talks of attending a university, but hasn’t finished her GED. She’s unemployed but turned down a telemarketing job.

As Wright presses her claim that BCTI defrauded her, a jury might have to decide whether her problems are the school’s fault or her own.

Most students who attended BCTI don’t have criminal records. But some came to BCTI with strikes against them, like teen pregnancies or drug abuse. Hundreds were high school dropouts.

Lawyers for students involved in the class-action lawsuit say BCTI preyed on the unsophisticated.

“Here they have salespeople go to welfare offices and say, ‘We can get you a dot-com job,’” said attorney Darrell Cochran. “Of course, what they’re stuck with is tens of thousands of dollars of education debt.”

BCTI officials say it was their calling to help students “learn how to fish” and “break the cycle of dependency.” Many students, they say, succeeded.

And those who didn’t? Court records indicate BCTI will argue some students have no one to blame but themselves. That’s what the school’s lawyers say about Anita Wright.

BCTI officials say they twice threatened to expel Wright for poor attendance. They’ve produced students and employees who say she was disruptive and didn’t pay attention in class.

BCTI notes that Wright signed a form acknowledging the school did not guarantee job prospects after graduation. And it argues that Wright’s lack of transportation, lack of a GED, criminal record and lackluster classroom performance caused her problems.Some former BCTI employees and students also say some students caused their own problems.

“For every person that complains, there’s 10 out there that I still see, and they say thank you,” said Rex Tucker, a former BCTI dean of education who worked in Tacoma and Lacey.

Tucker said students who worked hard got their money’s worth. But he said some students showed little initiative, and some chose to be victims.

Former student Karen Cleveland, who is happy with her BCTI education, was more blunt.

“You don’t sit back on your butt and expect someone else to find (you) a job,” she said. “Life does not work that way.”

Cleveland said BCTI never promised she’d get a job. She thinks students who are complaining “expect everything to be handed to them.”

Wright admits she has a troubled past. She served about 15 months in prison for two counts of delivery of cocaine. She was released in July 2003.

Wright said she’s lucky she was busted at a young age. She has plenty of time to start fresh.

After she was released, she got a job as a cashier at a St. Vincent DePaul Thrift Store. But she said she was laid off and found herself looking for a better job.

After meeting a BCTI recruiter at a welfare office, she borrowed about $6,800 in student loans and enrolled at BCTI’s Tacoma campus in August 2004.

Wright found the classes lacking. Much of what was taught she said she already knew: basic e-mail, word processing and spreadsheets. But she stuck with it and finished shortly before BCTI closed in March 2005.

Wright said she applied for dozens of jobs while in school, but the best BCTI could do was find her a telemarketing position paying less than $8 an hour. She turned it down.

Wright still hasn’t found a job, though she said she’s trying. She takes care of her niece, works odd jobs and uses food stamps to get by. She lives with her mother, who collects Social Security. Wright doesn’t have a car, has trouble paying bills and still hasn’t finished her GED.

Wright blames BCTI for some of her troubles. Instead of improving her life, she said, the school left her deep in debt and no closer to a good job.

“I should be in a nice little job right now, with my own studio apartment,” she said.

Wright denies she missed many classes and said her academic performance was good enough that BCTI tried to enroll her in an advanced computer course. Though she signed a disclaimer that BCTI didn’t guarantee jobs or pay, she said, “The whole eight months (of promises) goes against that paper.”

Wright said she’s made mistakes. Now she wants BCTI officials to acknowledge theirs.

“Take responsibility for the crap you pulled,” she said.