In 2015, Raquel Perera, wife of 17-time Latin Grammy winner Alejandro Sanz, debuted a school called the Rainbow Cultural Garden in posh midtown Miami. Speaking to Univision, Perera bragged that by immersing toddlers in as many as seven languages at once, the school would revolutionize teaching. Univision credited a New York guru named Keith Raniere with developing the unusual plan.
Fast-forward nearly three years, and Raniere has now been outed as the leader of an alleged "sex cult" called NXIVM, which is accused of blackmailing women and branding them with flaming-hot irons. Last month, Raniere was arrested by the FBI on sex-trafficking charges; an Albany home tied to the Rainbow Cultural Garden has been raided by the feds, while British authorities are investigating another Rainbow-affiliated school in London.
Now the State of Florida has ordered the midtown Miami school to shut down immediately after New Times brought the facility to the state’s attention. Florida officials say the school was not currently licensed to operate.
“[The Department of Children and Families] has no tolerance for any activities that put children at risk, including operating an unlicensed child-care facility,” David Frady, a spokesperson for the department, said Thursday. “DCF initiated a child protective investigation and ordered the facility to immediately cease operations this afternoon.”
Neither Perera nor Sanz responded to messages from New Times this week. But through a spokesperson, the school says it is now owned by Patricia Pietra and that Perera is no longer affiliated with Rainbow Cultural Garden Miami. The school also says it "has nothing to do with" Raniere.
"Rainbow Cultural Garden Miami is a multicultural tutoring center that has nothing to do with any cult," Pietra said through a spokesperson. "For four years... Rainbow Cultural Garden Miami has run as a tutorial center and has always conformed with all investigative agencies and their respective review of our facility and practices. The Florida Department of Children and Families is conducting an audit, and we are working with them to ensure that all proper licenses are currently in order."
According to Florida business records, Perera signed her name as the owner of the school's parent company in a March 2016 LLC filing. Pietra first signed state documents as a managing member in January 2018.
However, Perera's Twitter and Instagram biographies still indicate she is involved with the school. Her Instagram bio contains a link to rainbowculturalgarden.com, one of the central websites for the international chain of schools, which lists the midtown school among its outlets. (Perera posted an Instagram Live story as recently as yesterday afternoon without changing her bio.) Additionally, the Miami chapter shares the same name and logo as all the other Raniere-linked schools around the world.
Perera also told the Spanish newspaper ABC in March 2017 that she "directs" the school. ABC also reported that Perera and Sanz's young son, Dylan, had learned to speak Russian, Chinese, Arabic, English, and Spanish through the program. (A Rainbow spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions about when Perera left the school.)
It's not clear how closely the Rainbow schools are still linked with Raniere. The federal government has not alleged that the Rainbow schools, Perera, Sanz, or Pietra are in any way involved with Raniere's alleged crimes as a cult leader. But Frank Parlato Jr., a former NXIVM spokesperson-turned-whistleblo
"It's this huge experimental program that teaches children how to be sociopaths," says Parlato, who says the schools charge up to $10,000 per month. "It's a random idea that Raniere cooked up to keep the kids of his cult separated from their parents."
Raniere, a former multilevel-marketing entrepreneur from Albany, founded NXIVM in the late 1990s as a self-help organization. NXIVM advertises courses to help people reach “self-fulfillment” and better achieve their goals. More than 16,000 people are estimated to have attended NXIVM classes, and Raniere had particular success in luring celebrity clients such as Richard Branson and former Dynasty star Linda Evans, according to the Albany Times Union.
Raniere founded the original Rainbow Cultural Garden in 2006, according to one of his online biographies. He called it “a revolutionary child development program promoting children’s cultural, linguistic, emotional, physical, and problem-solving potential.” Ariella Menashy, a woman who tried to open a Rainbow Garden branch in Vancouver, told the British newspaper the Sun last December that “Keith Raniere is very much involved” in the day-to-day operations of the Rainbow schools.
“Nearly everyone involved in Rainbow Cultural Garden is involved with NXIVM, and I think it is just a way for Keith to make more money off the same people,” Menashy told the Sun.
According to the central Rainbow Cultural Garden's main U.K. website, the school chain has 11 current locations, in Albany, New York City, Los Angeles, London, Madrid, Guatemala City, Mexico City, three other Mexican cities, and Miami.
In 2010, the Times Union& dug into NXIVM's Rainbow project: The newspaper profiled a small child named Gaelen who had been effectively adopted by an NXIVM devotee and was being taught according to Raniere's plan at a Rainbow school in upstate New York. Linguists and child-development specialists told the newspaper that Raniere's teaching ideas aren't necessarily damaging to children but may or may not be successful and will likely be "very difficult" to achieve.
But even as Raniere's schools and self-help businesses boomed, people close to NXIVM’s headquarters in Albany have long accused Raniere of turning NXIVM into a cult. The group fiercely protected its reputation, helped in part, as Vanity Fair reported in 2010, by as much as $150 million in donations from Sara and Claire Bronfman, the heiresses to the Seagram's liquor fortune. As allegations mounted, NXIVM officials and benefactors have sued critics and filed criminal complaints against whistleblowers, the New York Times reported.
(The Rainbow Cultural Garden's U.K. webpage previously listed Sara Bronfman as the chain's CEO, further illustrating the links between NXIVM's backers and Rainbow. The webpage has since been deleted, but a cached version of the "Team" page includes Bronfman's headshot.)
Last October, credible allegations about NXIVM finally went mainstream when multiple women who left the group told the New York Times that Raniere and his team were branding women like cattle and collecting information used to blackmail them into becoming sex slaves. In November, actress and former NXIVM member Sarah Edmondson showed Vice News the brand she says she received while she was in the organization.
The case came to a head at the beginning of 2018, when a federal court for the Eastern District of New York issued a warrant for Raniere’s arrest. The FBI finally apprehended him in Mexico the last week of March. The feds say they found Raniere living in a $10,000-per-week villa near Puerto Vallarta with “several women.”
In an indictment, the FBI says that around 2015, Raniere founded a secret group within NXIVM known alternately as “DOS” or “the Vow.” The feds described NXIVM as having aspects of “a pyramid scheme” but, in this instance, said the pyramid included sex slavery: Raniere, known as the “vanguard,” sat atop the chain, and an all-female group of “slaves” underneath him allegedly pledged sexual fealty to him while in turn acting as “masters” to their own chains of “slaves.”
The feds wrote that Raniere intentionally targeted “women who were currently experiencing difficulties in their lives." Slaves were forced to provide “collateral” in the form of compromising images or personal information, which the feds say DOS members used to prevent the women from fleeing the group. The feds say the slaves were branded with Raniere’s initials and included photos of at least one alleged branding scar.
(Raniere and NXIVM have denied the government’s charges and say he'll be vindicated in court. "In response to the allegations against our founder, Keith Raniere, we are currently working with the authorities to demonstrate his innocence and true character," a statement on NXIVM's website reads.)
Last Friday, the FBI also arrested actress Allison Mack, famous for her role in the TV series Smallville, on charges that she served as Raniere’s confidant in persuading women to join his DOS group.
None of the federal indictments mention the Rainbow Cultural Garden. But Parlato — who has been entangled in numerous lawsuits with group leaders for years — has warned on his blog, Frank Report, that the Rainbow Cultural Garden is an offshoot of the alleged cult. He claims the school serves as a way to "fleece" rich NXIVM members by charging exorbitant tuition fees.
In other cities, Raniere's arrest has brought public scrutiny to the schools he helped found. After the New York Times broke news about Raniere and NXIVM's alleged branding rituals, the U.K.'s Sun confirmed the London branch of Rainbow Cultural Garden was not registered with the Office of Standards in Education.
"These allegations are extremely concerning, and we will urgently review the nature of the childcare offered by Rainbow Cultural Garden," a government spokesperson told the paper last year. According to Spectrum News, an Albany-area TV station, the FBI March 28 raided a property tied to the Albany outlet of the school chain.
It's not clear whether Perera or Sanz personally knew Raniere or were involved with NXIVM in any capacity.
Universal Music Group, Sanz's record label, also did not respond to messages from New Times this week. A spokesperson from the Creative Artists Agency, which is listed as representing Sanz, declined to comment.
The Madrid-born Sanz is one of the most decorated Spanish-language singers in history. He has won Latin Grammy of the Year three times and won three Grammy Awards as well. He might be best known to English-speaking audiences for his role in Shakira's 2005 hit "La Tortura."
According to CNN, Perera and Sanz married in Barcelona in 2012. The pair has at least one child, their son Dylan. The Madrid-based newspaper ABC reported that Perera has studied psychology.
A New Times reporter visited the school's midtown location Thursday afternoon, prior to DCF's order to shut down the school, and heard children playing and shouting from the lobby, which has a small table and access to a tiny outdoor yard littered with toys. A chalked advertisement for "free yoga for kids" sits in the front window.
When a reporter asked if the Rainbow Cultural Garden location in Miami was tied to or directed by Raniere, a receptionist smiled and declined to comment.
"This is a franchise," she said. "You'd need to speak to someone in charge." After New Times asked if Perera was available to speak, the receptionist took a card and said someone would get in touch.
A doorway on the side of the building says the school teaches students Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Arabic, German, Spanish, Russian, and English all at once.
"Did you know that there are children less than three months old learning more than three languages at the same time?" the signage reads. "We have children speaking more than seven languages."
But the school's critics say that the idea is not backed by evidence and that the approach was created by Raniere, who does not have a background in children's education. Rainbow Cultural Garden centers teach young children by rapidly switching out caretakers, who each speak a different language. Raniere and the schools argue this technique can help kids learn numerous languages at the same time. But critics say it could actually hamper children's development.
"Whatever Rainbow is, it is not a licensed educational institution here in New York state or a daycare, and I'm pretty sure that is the case around the world," Joseph O'Hara, a child-welfare advocate who previously worked with NXIVM, told the Sun. O'Hara said he was appalled at the teachings he saw at Rainbow Cultural Garden centers.
"The so-called curriculum they are immersing these kids in is damaging,” he said. “We've got examples of kids coming out and not being able to speak in any language, just babble. Everything I've read suggests there is psychological damage done to kids that don't learn languages at an appropriate age."
The midtown school isn't the only odd Florida tie to Raniere. Fort Lauderdale political consultant and Donald Trump confidant Roger Stone also briefly worked for NXIVM. Stone told New Times yesterday via text message that the group hired him as a lobbyist after a “Republican state senator” in New York recommended him. NXIVM asked for help dealing with a former employee it claimed had stolen intellectual property, but Stone says he left after telling the group it needed a lawyer instead. Stone also said that NXIVM seemed to be pitched to “middle-aged housewives seeking to build their self-esteem” but that he declined to attend an NXIVM class himself, which bothered NXIVM members.
DCF says any further details it turns up about Rainbow Cultural Garden will be confidential under Florida rules governing child welfare cases.
Parlato says he'll continue urging state authorities to look into the many branches of Raniere's empire and believes all of the Rainbow Cultural Garden schools deserve scrutiny.
"There's zero data to back this teaching stuff up," he says. "I mean, Raniere only speaks one language himself. How the hell does he know what’s going to increase the brainpower of a child?"
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