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Utah public school with ties to polygamous sect placed on 'warning' status

State Charter School Board credits FOX 13 Investigates for bringing issue to light
Posted at 5:28 PM, Jun 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-11 00:37:45-04

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — The Utah State Charter School Board voted on Thursday to issue a formal warning to a charter school in West Valley City and to launch a deeper investigation.

As FOX 13 first reported in December, Vanguard Academy is operated by members of a polygamous sect known as the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group, or "The Order."

FOX 13 INVESTIGATES: Public school with ties to polygamous sect is 100% white

A recent audit found Vanguard Academy in West Valley City had almost no students of color and that its vendors had family ties to school employees, among other issues.

The audit occurred after FOX 13 investigated and found multiple ties between Vanguard Academy and the Kingston Group.

“Probably most, if not all of them, are my family members,” said Amanda Rae, a former member of the sect who addressed board members directly.

Rae also told board members that some of her friends and siblings still attend Vanguard Academy, where students are being taught to perform religious acts associated with the polygamous sect.

The warning imposed on Vanguard Academy requires the school to fix issues identified in the audit. But the Utah State Charter School Board also voted Thursday that further investigation was needed.

“We need to be transparent,” said Bryan Bowles, vice chair of the board. “These are public dollars. Public taxpayer dollars."

WATCH: School with ties to polygamous sect under investigation by Charter School Board

Public charter schools in Utah are supposed to be open to students who apply, but the audit found evidence that illustrated children from the Kingston Group made up the vast majority of the student body.

Auditors found a reference to only students who belong to the “LDCC” being allowed into the gymnasium.

“Our staff, we don’t know what LDCC stands for,” said Stewart Okobia, financial compliance manager for the board said Thursday. “We have no idea what that is.“

Prior to Okobia's comments, Rae advised the board LDCC stands for the Latter-day Church of Christ, the sect's incorporated church.

"Which is proof right there that (Vanguard Academy) is not a public school," Rae said. "If you’re already saying you need to be a member of a religion to even get into the gym, it’s not public."

WATCH: Audit confirms findings of FOX 13 investigation into public school with ties to polygamous sect

The board was not satisfied with the explanations provided by Vanguard Academy's principal, Suzanne Owen.

She declined to answer questions after the meeting.

"You’ve been dishonest in your previous interviews with FOX 13," said FOX 13 investigative reporter Adam Herbets. "The board has asked for more transparency. Is there anything you’d like to say?"

Owen walked away and remained silent.

Last December, in an interview with FOX 13, Owen was not forthcoming about her involvement as a member of the Kingston Group.

"Well, I've heard of them," Owen said.

"But you're not familiar with it?" Herbets asked.

"No," Owen responded. "Well, like I say, this is a public charter school."

Since that interview, multiple past and present members of the Kingston family confirmed Owen is one of the "spiritual" wives to Hyrum Kingston, the leader's brother.

"We’ve already witnessed it on the news, Suzanne (Owen) lying straight to the cameras, that she’s not affiliated with the Kingstons," Rae said. "We were taught to lie in the name of God. We can follow the laws of the land, but the laws of the Lord are higher."

Rae and another woman who was raised in the group, Kollene Snow, are glad for the deeper investigation. They think a warning isn’t enough.

“This is not okay! The state needs to do a whole hell of a lot more,” Snow said. "I mean, it really doesn’t take much of an investigation... Everybody looks the same. Everybody’s got the same last name."

If Vanguard Academy fails to make corrections, the board has the option of imposing a more severe penalty of probation.

Rae said she believes Vanguard Academy needs to be closed for good.

"I feel like there’s already been so many red flags," she said. "Why do we keep dancing around it?"

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