THISDAY REPORTER & AGENCIES Dar es Salaam A GROUP of exchange students from Tanzania and other countries have been placed in deplorable conditions in Pennsylvania, United States, with some becoming malnourished or living in buildings strewn with dog faeces, it has been revealed. Prosecutors in the US say the amount of neglect inflicted upon the high school students merits criminal charges being brought against those responsible. The Deputy District Attorney for Lackawanna County in Pennsylvania, Michelle Olshefski, said an investigation has confirmed that foreign exchange students from Tanzania and elsewhere were placed in unsuitable homes by a former employee of Aspect Foundation, a San Francisco, California-based non-profit organisation that brings about 1,000 exchange students into the US each year. The DAs (district attorneys) office is convinced that criminal activity occurred, that there was a pattern of criminal neglect and a pattern of placing these children in danger, not only of physical harm but emotional and psychological harm, said Olshefski, who heads the special victims unit. We believe that criminal charges are warranted, she added. The former area coordinator with Aspect Foundation, Edna Burgette, was fired after allegations surfaced in May this year of the malnourished students living in houses in Scranton, Pennsylvania whose floors were covered with dog faeces. Burgette was paid $400 for each student she placed under the exchange programme. The scandal involves as many as 12 exchange students from Tanzania, Vietnam, Nigeria, Denmark, Colombia, Norway and France. It could not be immediately established how many Tanzanian students are currently taking part in the exchange programme organised by Aspect Foundation. The US State Department, which regulates private student-exchange organisations like Aspect, is reported to have now imposed a range of penalties on the non-profit organisation, including a 15 per cent reduction in the number of visas it will be allowed to distribute next school year. Aspect Foundation fully acknowledges that what happened in Scranton was deplorable and in complete violation of their own strict standards and those of the Department of States exchange visitor programme, Aspect spokeswoman Karen Walsh wrote in an email. She said the foundation has corrected the problems, fired or accepted resignations of those responsible, and established procedures to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. Olshefski declined to say if or when charges will be filed, or who could be charged. But she said an investigation continues into whether others knew or should have known that the students were being mistreated. We have our suspicions that others, in a way, played a part in Ednas ability to do what she did. Our investigation continues into whether their conduct rises to be criminal, she said. A US grand jury has been investigating the scandal. Because grand jury proceedings in Pennsylvania are secret, Olshefski stressed that her comments are based on a criminal probe that took place outside the grand jury. In May this year, 17-year-old exchange student Nicklas Schreyer from Denmark - who was sent to Pennsylvania to spend a school year at a local high school - explained how he quickly discovered things werent the way Aspect Foundation had promised. He shared a small bedroom with an exchange student from Tanzania. He was threatened with being sent back to Denmark when he broke a house rule, such as leaning on the dinner table. He couldnt attend field trips to places like New York City and Washington DC, because he said the area programme coordinator, Edna Burgette, never told him about these trips. He also said whenever he called her for help, she hung up, and his pleas were ignored. I tried to tell Edna I couldnt live like that because there were some crazy rules in the house, Schreyer said. She kept telling me to just be happy I had a family and a roof over my head, and then she would just hang up on me. After about a month, Schreyer called his mother in Denmark, who reached out to the authorities for help. The treatment of Schreyer and his Tanzanian roommate, along with at least 10 other exchange students in various parts of Pennsylvania, has become the subject of an official investigation by local officials and the US Department of State. The Tanzanian exchange student (name withheld for now) who had been living with Schreyer could not be reached for comment. The Deputy Minister for Education and Vocational Training, Ms Mwantumu Mahiza, who is currently in Dodoma attending the annual parliamentary budget session, said she did not have an immediate comment on the matter, instead referring THISDAY to the ministrys permanent secretary in Dar es Salaam. According to the Aspect Foundation website, it was founded in 1985 as a small non-profit organisation offering affordable, study-abroad opportunities to students from more than 50 countries, including Tanzania. The exchange students live with volunteer host families in more than 350 communities throughout the United States. We adhere to strict standards for student and host family selection, and we provide all participants with solid preparation for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, Aspect claims on its website.