Recently an investigative report published by the USA Today quoting Minnesota officials said, American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, a local massage school could be tied to prostitution. It said, a locked closet full of student records, off-limits to staff, was an alarming discovery.
So, too, were the massage therapists with credentials from the school who’d lost their licenses for ties to prostitution or human trafficking, and the internship sites and supervisors linked to prostitution. A host of paperwork and financial issues only seemed to arise in the school’s Chinese-language Tuina massage program.
All of it added up to a “theme of prostitution and/or human trafficking,” the Minnesota Office of Higher Education wrote in a letter to the school’s president.
The office, though, lacked the authority to prosecute either allegation.
Instead, it went after more mundane issues: Payments that didn’t add up. Missing student information. A haphazard approval process for off-site training.
That was enough for the office in February 2020 to crack down on the Roseville school, ultimately ordering it to close or find a new owner by the following February. The operator of a massage school in Wisconsin purchased the institution and renamed it the American Academy of Health and Wellness.
Around the US, massage schools in towns large and small are suspected of ties to the illicit massage industry, a billion-dollar black market in the US built to sell sex. A months-long USA TODAY investigation uncovered two dozen schools with connections to either prostitution or fraud, or both.
Like the sex spas themselves, the schools suspected of feeding them workers are hard to detect. It’s often something innocuous that catches an oversight group’s attention: a cheat-sheet pulled from a boot during a massage therapy exam, a counterfeit massage license or a signature forged on official school documents.
As in the Minnesota case, regulators sometimes find ways to ding a school for other infractions, but many slip through a fragmented system of accountability. Bringing charges on serious crimes such as human trafficking and prostitution is rare and difficult.
Sex spas inhabit strip malls and shopping centers across the U.S., operating next to grocery stores and day cares, liquor stores and restaurants. Their names tend to be generically Asian – Oriental Massage, Jade Spa, East-West Therapy – a nod to their often-Asian immigrant workers and a calling card to their predominantly white male customers.
Their existence hinges on an air of legitimacy, and law enforcement and advocates suggest that their owners, some part of vast criminal rings, will do whatever it takes to avoid detection. To receive a massage license, applicants in most states must have attended an approved school. In many cases, they also must pass an exam.
The Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, a family foundation focused on accountability in higher education, identified the Minnesota school and others in a report it presented to the US Department of Education.
A subcommittee from the House Oversight Committee gave the Education Department two weeks to outline its procedures to “identify and stop human or sex trafficking connected with postsecondary education,” citing the foundation’s report. As per directives of the subcommittee from the House Oversight Committee, Education Department should now come up with its actions by the end of July 2021.
The committee also requested a list of cosmetology and massage schools receiving taxpayer money controlled by the department.
Department of Education press secretary Kelly Leon told USA Today, the agency takes seriously any allegation of unlawful activity at a university or college receiving federal money. She added the agency has several enforcement offices that review such allegations to see if they should be investigated more closely.
The former owner of the Minnesota massage school, Changzhen Gong, denied the state’s claims and said he was never given a chance to refute them. He is still paid by the school, USA TODAY found, for helping with the ownership change.
Gong also is featured prominently on the school’s website and was referred to as “president” when he hosted a recent interview on WeChat, a China-based social media app. The school’s old name was still being advertised in a Chinese newspaper as of last month, related to a clinic Gong runs.
While the school’s new ownership satisfied the state of Minnesota, the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation noted it bears a striking resemblance to the past institution, including similarities in the academic programs and descriptions of the school’s history.
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