La’James International College, which operates a chain of cosmetology schools in Iowa, faces a class-action lawsuit from current and former students who accuse the college of mishandling their student loan money.
But the court battle doesn’t represent the first time the school has faced legal scrutiny; and the Des Moines Register has covered allegations levied by current and former students — and the subsequent investigations that were launched in response by the Iowa Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Education — for nearly 10 years, publishing more than a dozen news stories and opinion columns about the institution.
Here are some of the things the Register has written in recent years:
2013: Numerous complaints from students and families
Register editorial writer Andie Dominick was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2013 for a series of editorials on occupational licensing and state oversight in various industries, including several pieces about La’James. In a May 5 column, she wrote:
“Iowa’s government forces people who want to be cosmetologists to spend thousands of dollars and months attending a beauty school to secure a state license to work. That government provides essentially no oversight of the schools and little help when students are wronged.
“It’s the perfect arrangement if you are a for-profit beauty school but not so much if you are a student. It is time for government to look out for students.”
2014: La’James fined for sanitation, instruction infractions
In 2013, after the Register’s editorials had been published, the Iowa Board of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences levied administrative charges against La’James. As summarized by the Register at the time:
“… the board accused the company of failing to disinfect instruments and equipment, failing to clean pedicure spas, and failing to provide a separate room for the practice of esthetics. The colleges also were accused of failing to have enough instructors to supervise students, employing instructors without proper certifications, and failing to post notices that public services were being performed by students.”
The following year, owner Cynthia Becher and administrator Tracy LaDage reached a settlement with the board, agreeing to pay a $10,000 fine while denying wrongdoing.
The Register’s Editorial Board wasn’t satisfied with that resolution, though, which included a promise of “self-inspections” by the school to ensure it remained in compliance.
“This is how things work when it comes to Iowa’s cosmetology rules and laws, which often make little sense. It doesn’t make sense, for example, to require someone to obtain 2,100 hours of education and training at a cosmetology school to cut, color and style hair. It doesn’t make sense to require those 2,100 hours of training for someone who wants to work only braiding hair, a skill that may not even be taught at a cosmetology school.”
More:Iowa Appeals Court upholds class-action status for lawsuit against La’James International College
Later in 2014: La’James sued by Iowa Attorney General
The Attorney General’s office sued La’James in August 2014, claiming the school systematically defrauded students. It also put out the call for other former students to share their accounts with the state.
“What many students experience is a school with extraordinary turnover of instructors, resulting in instructorless classrooms and inconsistent instruction, lack of access to practice their skills, and ultimately, an institution that treats them more like free labor than students,” according to a lawsuit the Iowa attorney general’s office filed in Polk County District Court. “Indeed, through their tuition, students seemingly pay La’ James for the privilege of working for the company.”
An attorney for the school told the Register at the time the Attorney General’s claims were without merit.
“We have been highly cooperative and transparent with the attorney general’s office, and are surprised and disappointed at the approach and position the office has taken — particularly given that the complaint appears to be completely devoid of any facts supporting the very general and inflammatory allegations,” Philadelphia attorney Daniel Walworth wrote in an email to the Register.
2016: La’James forgives $2.1 million in student debt to settle case
La’James eventually settled the Attorney General’s lawsuit, paying $500,000 to the state on top of $25,000 each from Cynthia and Travis Becher. The school also agreed to forgive $2.1 million in outstanding debt and accepted monitoring by an independent administrator.
The deal also called for a number of policy changes from the school, including that:
The school would no longer require students to recruit customers to receive credit or pay the school for clients.
The school would agree not to require students to perform janitorial or sanitation services beyond Iowa Board of Cosmetology Arts & Sciences or Iowa Board of Massage Therapy minimum requirements.
La’ James would agree to staff classes with qualified, licensed instructors.
La’ James could not remove a student’s completed program hours unless allowed by a written policy.
La’ James would have to establish a leave-of-absence policy that permitted extended absences for justifiable reasons, including medical leaves or financial hardships.
If a student withdrew within two weeks of enrolling, La’ James would have to provide a full refund, except for the $50 application fee.
March 2020: the Register investigates Iowa licensing laws
Iowa requires 2,100 hours of education for a cosmetology license, tied for the most of any state. Despite this, a Register investigation found that both students and employers questioned the value of that education, both from La’James and other beauty schools, while also criticizing the cost burden it puts on people entering a new profession.
“Hannah Arant, the manager at Trixies Salon in Des Moines, said she graduated from La’James with $28,000 of debt. Some days, she said, instructors didn’t show up for class, and students watched movies.
Arant supports the 2,100-hour requirement, in theory. But she said she didn’t get the training she paid for.”
At the time, the Legislature was considering bills that would have reduced the education requirement for cosmetology to 1,500 hours, among other changes, but the bills did not advance through the legislative process.
August 2020: Attorney General alleges new violations
In August 2020, Attorney General Tom Miller claimed that La’James was not in compliance with its 2016 settlement agreement and asked to extend the independent administrator’s term, at La’James’ expense.
“We’re very concerned about students’ continued complaints about La’ James, as well as the administrator’s findings that the school is not in compliance with prohibitions regarding false, deceptive or misleading representations; omissions of material fact; and engagement in unfair practices,” a spokesperson for Miller’s office said at the time. …
“Because of that, we have sought to extend the June 2016 settlement agreement so the school can correct these problems and serve students. In addition, because most of the problems relate to federal student aid, we ask that the U.S. Department of Education use its statutory authority to enforce these violations.”
A Register investigation also found that in the midst of the alleged financial improprieties, the school received multiple loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program early in the pandemic worth more than $1 million.
William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.