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TOOTH OR CONSEQUENCES

They spent their young adult lives looking after kids and husbands, cooking and cleaning. And then Arla Tolman and Suzanne Martin decided they wanted something to safeguard their futures. They wanted careers--as dental assistants.

What they say they got was the financial and psychological equivalent of a root canal.

That was in 1988. Now, after seven years of legal jawing that went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, Tolman and Martin and eleven other women who sued the Colorado College of Medical and Dental Careers say they're getting drilled again. What's more, they're supposed to shut up and like it.

They don't.
Two years ago Cencor Career Colleges, Inc., the Delaware corporation that owned the school, filed for protection from its creditors without informing either the disappointed women or their lawyer. Today the school that offers the dental-assistant training is known as Concorde Career Institute; it's owned by another corporation, Concorde Career Colleges, Inc., and it operates in a new, larger facility.

But it's the same old wolf under a different sheepskin, critics claim. After all, the director of Concorde is the former director of the Colorado College of Medical and Dental Careers. The president of the corporation that owns Concorde is the son of the man, now deceased, who was president of the corporation that owned CCMDC. Photographs of CCMDC graduating classes hang in Concorde's halls. And complaints from a recent Concorde graduate bear a striking resemblance to those of students about its previous incarnation.

Back in August 1986, Arla Tolman was a widow with grown children. Her income from her late husband's Social Security stipend was about to expire. She needed a job, but all she had ever done outside the home was part-time retail sales. What she really needed, she decided, was a profession that would make her enough money to live on and, eventually, provide some sort of retirement plan.

Tolman became interested in a career as a dental assistant. She went to one school, took a general entrance exam--and failed it. Discouraged but determined to press on, she heard about the Colorado College of Medical and Dental Careers. A friend drove her to the school on Grant Street, where she got a hard sell.

Tolman says CCMDC officials told her about the school's 22-year history and how she would be trained by top instructors in the latest techniques using state-of-the-art equipment. After she graduated, they said, the school would help her find a job that would start her at a minimum $1,400 a month. They bragged of a 95 percent placement rate and promised that doctors and dentists were practically begging for CCMDC graduates.

Tolman got a whirlwind tour of the facility. Sure enough, the chairs looked like the chairs she'd seen in her dentist's office. Informing her that the school was very selective, the recruiter handed her an entrance exam. It was nearly identical to the one she had already failed, and Tolman worried that she'd be disappointed again. But instead, a miracle: She earned a perfect score.

Then she was told that she could keep her sales job and pay the $3,000-plus tuition by applying for a Colorado Guaranteed Student Loan; school staffers even helped her fill out the loan forms. And the best news of all: Tolman could earn her degree in an intensive, six-month, half-day program, rather than the year-long dental-assistant program offered at a local community college.

Two hours after she went into the building to pick up a brochure, Tolman left as a newly enrolled student in the dental-assistant program.

Suzanne Martin enrolled in the same program in the same month. She was at a similar stage in her life as Tolman: At forty, with her children from her two marriages grown, she wanted a career in order to help her second husband make ends meet.

Martin had seen the advertisements for CCMDC on television. The school looked promising. Two graduates worked as medical assistants for her allergist; they had gone to the school nearly twenty years earlier and had nothing but good things to say about CCMDC.

Martin visited the school and received much the same sales pitch that Tolman had heard. The program sounded wonderful, especially the part about getting out in nine months and into a satisfying, well-paid career. Martin had enough money to cover tuition from a small inheritance; she decided to use it to better herself.

At first the program seemed fine. Sure, there were irritations, such as being required to buy two $40 uniforms from the school, as well as books that they were then told not to read because "the school wanted to go by its own outline," Tolman recalls. But the women remained convinced that they would get a good education that would result in better jobs. In retrospect, Martin says, "They wanted to get you past the period when you could ask for a full refund."  

After that, the situation went downhill rapidly. Martin says that when she inquired as to a teacher's credentials, "I was shown a paper that basically said, `Yes, I am a teacher.'"

And the teachers, Martin and Tolman say, were absent or tardy half of the time. "But God forbid you were ten minutes late," Tolman adds, "or you'd be severely reprimanded."

The school's equipment was either outdated, in short supply or nonexistent. "The X-ray was a disaster," Martin says. "We basically had to cram it in during the last couple weeks before graduation and learn it from a book. And the machine didn't work properly...One girl had to hold the cone steady while the other would push the button from outside the room.

"Which isn't a real safe practice."
At times it was impossible to complete assignments, because materials couldn't be found. But students soon discovered that complaining was of little use and could even result in dismissal.

Martin recalls one day when she stalked from a class because there weren't enough materials to finish her assignment. She saw a student she knew in the hallway and began complaining--loudly.

A little while later, Martin says, she was summoned to the office of a school official. "Someone had told her that there was a redhead in the hall bitching about the school," she remembers. "She told me that if I did it again, I'd be out of the school.

"My response was to keep my mouth shut. If I got thrown out then, I would have been out all but a little bit of my money. I figured that I'd do what I could to get an education, get out and get a job."

In other ways, though, the school did all it could to ensure that the women passed their classes with flying colors. Such as giving open-book and open-note tests. Or even going over the questions and the answers just before administering the test.

"If you were smart enough to memorize the answers, you passed," Martin says. "But you weren't necessarily learning anything."

Both Martin and Tolman graduated in 1987; Martin was in the top 5 percent of the class, and Tolman in the top 7 percent.

They soon learned, however, that a CCMDC diploma did not a dental assistant make.

Martin's first job was filling in at a dentist's office for an assistant who had been called into the Army Reserves. The dentist was appalled to find that she couldn't even mix crown cement properly; he had to show her how. His other assistant tried to console Martin, saying that she, too, had graduated from CCMDC and had to learn her job by watching the dentist and his first assistant.

Martin and her fellow CCMDC grad were so incompetent at taking X-rays that the dentist did them himself. "Basically, what we did was pass him instruments and stay out of his way," Martin says.

When the other assistant returned from the Army Reserves, Martin was out of a job. She called CCMDC and asked for help finding another. "I was told to take my leads out of the newspaper because that's where they got theirs," she says. "So much for the placement service."

Tolman and Martin both went through a series of jobs at various dental offices where their supervisors complained about their poor training. And then they were fired for incompetence.

"The school used to tell us not to worry about knowing certain things because the people we worked for would have their own way of doing things," Martin says. "Wrong. Doctors and dentists don't want to spend their time teaching--they're not teachers. You either know the stuff or you're gone."

Martin's last job as a dental assistant was in May 1988. By then she had worked at a half-dozen other offices and had been terminated from each. Her self-esteem hit rock bottom; she felt like a fool for having wasted her money at CCMDC when, if she had just been more patient, she could have gone to a community college. Between searches for employment as a dental assistant, she cleaned houses and went on crying jags. She now blames the failure of her marriage on the emotional turmoil she was going through.

"He was a good man," she says of her second husband. "But I was impossible to live with. He deserved better."

Tolman was also having a hard time. At one job, a dentist told her that he hadn't used the materials she believed were part of a procedure for ten years. "He said, what in the hell were they teaching you at that place?" she recalls. "I broke down. I just wanted to hide."  

In 1988, while working at another soon-to-be-over job at a dentist's office, Martin ran into Tolman, who was working next door. The two compared notes, and Tolman told Martin that another former student was planning to sue the school to get her money back.

Martin contacted the woman's attorney, George Price. Soon thereafter, Price filed suit against Cencor Inc. on behalf of thirteen women, most from the classes of 1986 and 1987, but some dating as far back as 1984. He agreed to take the case on contingency; if they won anything, he'd receive the standard lawyer's cut of 33 percent.

The suit accused CCMDC of failing to provide its former dental and medical students with "the knowledge and technical proficiency to enable them to work in the health-care field. The Plaintiffs, after receiving training at CCMDC, were unfamiliar with the procedures, equipment, instruments, and supplies utilized in the physician or dentist's office where they were either externing or working."

The suit contended that lab equipment at the school was "outmoded, broken or worn out and not the type used by practicing dentists or physicians" and that facilities "were often dirty and in a state of disrepair."

The thirteen women met to recount their experiences. They would have laughed at the similarities of their stories if it didn't hurt so much. Most of the women had never had much money and were now scratching to make ends meet. In fact, CCMDC's innovative recruiters had found one prospective student in a state unemployment line, another at an employment agency, and others working at dead-end sales jobs.

Some of the graduates were like Martin and Tolman, middle-aged women who feared for their futures and desperately wanted careers. Others were young, often just out of high school and searching for direction. CCMDC's recruiters had helped those who didn't have money for tuition fill out forms for loans that the state guarantees for private institutions.

The lawsuit asked for all the things lawyers usually ask for--damages for suffering, punitive damages, etc. But according to Martin and Tolman, all the women really wanted was to get their money back or their loans forgiven so that they'd have the funds to go to a real school. A school where they'd learn something they could really use.

Graduates of the dental-assistant program weren't the only people disappointed with their CCMDC education. At about the same time the women were filing their suit, a medical-assistant student, Sylvia Westbrook, filed a complaint against the school with the Colorado Community College and Occupational Education System, the state agency then charged with overseeing and licensing such institutions.

"Doctors in Denver," she wrote, "are telling us that we are learning outdated methods of performing laboratory procedures and that these will prove worthless when we are working in the field."

Westbrook also complained that "the lab is filthy. Dried blood and urine are not cleaned up between classes, and many times it isn't cleaned up overnight. The school is a disgrace to Colorado's private trade-school industry."

The agency sent investigator John Glau to check out her complaints. His report determined that Westbrook was wrong.

"It was concluded there was not a lack of equipment at the time you attended the school," Glau's supervisor wrote to Westbrook. The instructor-student ratio was "reasonable" and the "bathrooms and lab were cleaned every night." The school had records indicating a placement rate of 60 percent, he noted. Besides, the Colorado Guaranteed Student Loan Program had not received any complaints about the mishandling of grants and loans.

"She was a troublemaker," Glau now says of Westbrook, "and didn't want just money. She wanted a pound of flesh."

At the time of Westbrook's complaint, the school was in its old building. "Some of the tiles in the bathroom had cracks and so forth, so it didn't look clean," Glau explains.

Although Westbrook wasn't involved in the dental-assistant graduates' suit, they knew of her complaint--and they were dismayed by the state agency's conclusion that there was nothing wrong with CCMDC.

"The school either knew there was going to be an inspection and cleaned up its act... maybe pulled out some supplies," says Martin, "or, well, something didn't smell quite right."

Although Westbrook's complaint was quickly dismissed, the women's lawsuit bounced around the court for years. Ultimately it found its way to the Colorado Supreme Court, where it resulted in a mixed decision.

The high court determined that under Colorado law, there were no grounds to sue for educational malpractice--"although I believe they will someday have to revisit that issue," attorney Price says.  

The court did, however, rule to allow a suit on the grounds of breach of contract, concealment and misrepresentation. The case was sent back down to the trial court, where a judge suggested that CCMDC repay the women their tuition as well as $2,500, and that then everyone could go their own way. The school's lawyers would have none of it.

And so, after seven years of legal wrangling, a trial was scheduled to start August 7. But in late July a settlement conference was called. That's when the women and their attorney received the news that struck like a probe at an open nerve.

The school's lawyers told them that Cencor had filed for bankruptcy, which allowed the company to reorganize without harassment by creditors--and that included the disgruntled grads, should they win their lawsuit.

The kicker was that the bankruptcy filing had occurred in 1993, nearly two years earlier, but no one had bothered to notify the plaintiffs or Price. And the filing was legal, because the company had run the proper newspaper notices. It simply had run them in newspapers in the state where the corporation's owners lived, rather than in Colorado.

Tolman says the school's lawyers offered the thirteen women a deal: Each of them would receive $1,000 and agree not to discuss the terms of the settlement. It was either that or go to trial. The lawyers told the women that they would appeal if the group decided to go to trial and prevailed. And if such an appeal failed, the attorneys added, then the company could switch its bankruptcy filing from a reorganization to a complete dissolution, in which case the women would have to wait in line with all the other Cencor creditors.

The women learned that Cencor's president, Robert Brozman, had died. According to Cencor's lawyers, Cencor no longer officially owned the school, which had changed its name to the Concorde Career Institute and was run by Concorde Career Colleges, Inc. Tolman says the attorneys somehow failed to mention that the president of Concorde is Brozman's son, Jack.

The women were angry at the unexpected revelations; Tolman stalked out of the settlement meeting. But Price says he stayed and did what he could. The school's insurance company was paying for its lawyers, but he was already in the hole $50,000. Given the bankruptcy filing, the outcome of the suit wasn't sure enough to risk four more years in litigation.

Price negotiated the settlement amount up to $1,500 per graduate, one-third of which would be his under their contingency agreement. Even then, the school's lawyers added the caveat that not only would the terms of the settlement be confidential, but the women and their families would be required to never speak ill of the school again. If they did, they would be charged $3,000 as a punishment.

"Even Mr. Price wouldn't be allowed to talk about the case," says Martin, who had moved to Phoenix and didn't attend the settlement conference. "He wouldn't even be able to go to the Colorado student loan people and tell them what he knows and ask them to forgive the loans."

Christie Samuelson, a spokeswoman for the student loan programs, says the agency is unaware of any complaints from former or current students of the school.

Price already refuses to say much about the case because of the impending settlement. "But hell if they're going to shut this old lady up before I get in my two cents," says Martin, who says she will not sign the settlement agreement.

"I'm an American, and I'll be damned if I won't exercise my free-speech rights."

Dick Shepard became the director of CCMDC in the late Seventies. "It's all over," he says of the disappointed graduates' suit. "There's nothing I can discuss."

Today Shepard is the director of the Concorde Career Institute, which offers dental- and medical-assistant training, just as CCMDC once did. Asked if Concorde had made any changes as a result of the complaints about CCMDC, he hesitates before answering. "It has always been a very good school," Shepard says. "Some of the things that were said were just that, people talking. It was sad."

Shepard claims that Concorde is not connected to CCMDC "in any way," until he is reminded that the owner of the new school is the son of the owner of the old school. Then he says that CCMDC was renamed Concorde because company officials decided to change the names of all the company's schools to Concorde. "I fought the change," Shepard says. "I liked the old name."

Although he terms both the old and new facilities "quite nice," Shepard says the school had no choice but to move. "We just outgrew the other one," he explains. Concorde is now located at 770 Grant, a few blocks away from the former home of CCMDC.  

Concorde is in good standing with the relatively new state agency charged with overseeing and licensing private institutions. Five years ago the Colorado Community College and Occupational Education System, which had overseen schools such as CCMDC, spun off the Division of Private Occupational Schools after complaints from community colleges over a perceived conflict of interest.

Glau, the man who investigated Westbrook's complaints about CCMDC for the state, heads the new agency. The Division of Private Occupational Schools receives its operating funds, including salaries, from fees charged to Colorado's 200-plus private occupational schools. Each of these schools is reviewed every year, according to Glau, with its files inspected to ensure compliance with student loan and refund regulations and to check teacher credentials and school financial statements. The division also inquires about job placement claims, although Glau says it is physically impossible for his agency to check them out.

"We talk to students and sit in on classes," says Glau.
And at Concorde, he contends, the students appear to be getting their money's worth. When told of Martin's intimation that he might have received some kind of consideration from Cencor or Concorde in exchange for his approval of the school, Glau is vehement in his denial. "Absolutely not," he says. "Why lose my job over a lunch? Good grief."

Glau says that Tolman and the other women who filed the lawsuit against CCMDC never complained to his agency. "If they had, we would have investigated," he says. "I wasn't even aware of the lawsuit until three or four years ago." (Westword published a lengthy article, "Tooth Decay," concerning the suit on March 30, 1988.) Today, Glau dismisses the women's complaints as unfounded. "Someone can't get a job or keep one," he says, "so they complain about the school."

It's difficult to ascertain just how well CCMDC graduates really are doing, however, because Shepard says that such information falls under the settlement's gag order.

Shepard refuses to allow Westword to interview current students at the school. "It wouldn't be fair," he says. "It has all been resolved amicably, and I don't understand this." (Last week school officials ejected Westword's photographer from the premises, saying he failed to identify himself.)

Concorde continues to advertise its programs on television. That's the only reason she's aware of the school, says Judith Lazar, the legislative liaison for the Colorado Medical Group Management Association. Her organization helps its 250 members--which include health-maintenance organizations, hospitals and private offices--hire trained medical assistants. "My advice to anyone interested in becoming a medical or dental assistant is to go to a community college," says Lazar. "The profit motive is entirely different compared to these high-priced, turn-them-out-fast schools."

The Colorado Dental Association keeps a list of schools it recommends to people looking into dental-assistant programs. For the metro area, the Emily Griffith Opportunity School and Front Range Community College are included on the list. Concorde is not.

Jan Strauss, director of the dental-assisting program at Front Range Community College, laughs when asked if she's heard complaints about Concorde. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't laugh," she says. "But hey, I understand."

Strauss says she's been contacted by students from Concorde who are frustrated that they've had six different teachers in six weeks. "They want to know what credits will transfer to our program," she adds. "Unfortunately, I have to tell them that nothing will transfer. It's sad, because they've invested all this time and money, and the only thing I can do is take more of their time and money."

While Front Range's program is accredited through the American Dental Association, Concorde's is not. "We have a higher standard that we have to meet," Strauss says.

Of the last twenty people to graduate from Front Range's program, only two don't have jobs in their chosen field. "And one isn't trying very hard," Strauss says. "She's taking the summer off."

Despite Shepard's assertion that things are fine at Concorde, several recent students have complaints that sound very similar to those of the lawsuit's plaintiffs.

Jill Steddon was just out of high school when she signed up in 1993, paying cash on the barrelhead. School officials told her she'd soon be making $9 to $12 an hour, she says. "I wanted to be a medical assistant and then go on to get my registered-nurse degree at another school," she adds. "I liked the idea of the accelerated program, so I could get on with things."

Steddon says her teachers often didn't show up for class at Concorde. "One day the instructor didn't come, so they showed us a movie, The Band Played On." she says. "I got so angry that I got up and left.  

"But when I complained to Dick Shepard, he'd just say it was out of his control if a teacher was missing...but they were always missing."

Steddon has other complaints about the school. "I learned the theory of X-ray, but we never got to use the machine," she says. "They never even took us into the room." And while there was usually enough equipment, she adds, "all the syringes and needles were outdated, expired."

Steddon graduated in 1994 with mostly As and Bs on her Concorde report cards. For her first job, the school sent her to a doctor's office. She worked there two days before the physician told her she didn't have the necessary skills and dismissed her; he refused to pay her until she filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Labor. Steddon says she has since learned that the same doctor routinely hires on Concorde graduates for two days, then dismisses them and refuses to pay.

After she was fired, Steddon called or interviewed potential employers every day for two months, but she always heard the same story: She wasn't qualified. She says when she called the school to ask for help, the employment opportunities they suggested were the same possibilities she was reading about in the newspaper want ads.

Finally, she got a job with the Visiting Nurses Association...as a secretary. "I love my job, but it's not what I went to school for," Steddon says. She hopes to one day pursue a nursing career, but for now she's working to pay off the bills she accumulated while attending CCMDC and looking for work.

Most of her classmates aren't doing any better, Steddon says.
"I've heard that two or three have jobs in doctor's offices," she says. "But there's a gas station across the street where we go to get soft drinks, and the guy who manages the place was in the class behind mine. He couldn't get a job, either. A courier came by the office; he was in the class ahead of me. And one of my friends is working for Kmart. It just gets so frustrating that you give up."

Martin knows how she feels. Her third husband has developed serious medical problems and can't work; she cleans hotel rooms and works for a collection agency "harassing people," she says. "I hate it, but you have to make a living. I'd like to go back to school, but I can't afford it. I squandered my money.

"You all hear about old people being sold aluminum siding for their brick homes by some slick Willy. Well, I'm here to tell you, it isn't just old people who get swindled. My greatest fear because of my husband's health is that I'll wake up next to a cold body one of these mornings, and then I'll be standing in a welfare line with a small child. Nothing could be more horrible to me."

Even so, Martin says she won't sign the agreement as a matter of principle. Tolman wishes she could afford to do the same.

After the lawsuit was filed, she actually worked for a dentist for six years, at a fraction of what she was told she would make. Then again, this dentist did little more than fillings and crowns, and Tolman mostly cleaned up.

"It was a dead end," she says. "I couldn't even get a raise, and it certainly wasn't a career. So I quit. That's my own fault."

Tolman, who spent most of her CCMDC career on the dean's list, is back working in a clothing store. "I have nothing," she says. "I lost my house because I couldn't make payments, pay my student loan and my other bills.

"According to the ads, I should have been making a decent living by now. Basically, the only thing I learned at CCMDC was the vocabulary. That will get you a job, but it won't fool them for long.

"I'm devastated. My attorney says that when I sign the agreement, I won't be able to say anything about that school. But if it takes my last breath, I will see them closed.

"They built up our hopes...and shattered them.


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