The founder of a controversial Utah-based association of boarding schools has had discussions with city officials in Boonville, Mo., about purchasing Kemper Military School.
Kemper, the oldest military academy west of the Mississippi River when it closed in 2002, has been owned by the city since April 2003.
“I would not characterize this as an offer,” said Ned Beach, president of the city's Industrial Development Authority. “But we're talking, and that's exciting.”
The prospective buyer is Robert Lichfield, founder of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools. The association, based in St. George, Utah, provides services and guidance for a network of seven schools in the United States and Jamaica.
Some schools affiliated with the organization have been the subject of abuse allegations, and one congressman asked the Department of Justice to investigate the association and its schools.
Kemper, if purchased by Lichfield, would not be a member of the association's network. Instead, it would be subleased to Randall Hinton, who said he would help operate the school independently.
“We won't have any affiliation with WWASPS or anybody else,” Hinton said.
Hinton, 30, would be part of the Kemper management team. He said he previously worked at homes for children, including some in the WWASPS network.
His vision for Kemper, he said, includes maintaining the name and the military theme. Uniformed students between 13 and 18 would receive an education while adhering to a regimented schedule.
At this point, though, he's not even sure Lichfield will make an offer.
“The buildings are severely damaged,” Hinton said. “We've been going through just to see what it's going to cost to make it livable again.”
Lichfield could not be reached for comment.
Though no money has changed hands, some members of Boonville's Industrial Development Authority are excited at the prospect of seeing Kemper up and running. The city purchased the school at auction for about $525,000 in April 2003 with the hope that one day the historic seven buildings would again be a vital component of Boonville.
Other groups have previously expressed interest, but nothing has panned out. Beach said there are two other “interested parties,” but stressed that neither is as far along as the Lichfield group.
Rick Ball, a member of the authority, said Wednesday he had not spoken with Lichfield and did not know much about him.
WWASPS-affiliated schools have been the subject of abuse allegations, according to reports in newspapers such as The New York Times, and the association has been named as a defendant in several lawsuits. One school, Casa by the Sea, in Mexico, was shut down by Mexican authorities in September. Another, Majestic Ranch, in Utah, was the subject of a state investigation that resulted in a misdemeanor assault conviction last year.
Click here to read correspondence between Congressman George Miller and Attorney General John Ashcroft about alleged human rights violations of children in WWASPS facilities.
The abuse allegations prompted George Miller, a U.S. congressman from California, to ask then-attorney general John Ashcroft to investigate the association.
In a November 2003 letter to Ashcroft, Miller wrote: “There have been serious allegations that hundreds of children have been mistreated or neglected. … We believe that the Department of Justice should investigate whether federal laws concerning child abuse and neglect, interstate commerce or unfair or deceptive advertising have been broken by WWASPS or those operating these facilities.”
Ken Kay, president of WWASPS, said Thursday that the first priority of the association and its schools is “the safety and well-being of the children.” Since the association was founded in 1997, he said, more than 15,000 families have sent children to member schools. There have been only about 10 lawsuits in which the association was named as a defendant, he said, and nearly all of those were either dismissed or thrown out.
Click here to read, "Teen-help operators have clout -- Family behind schools with checkered record calls in political favors, critics say ."
The Justice Department declined Miller's request to investigate, saying its authority did not extend to facilities outside the United States or those that were privately run.
Beach said city officials had done their due diligence on Lichfield and his group but found no reason to terminate talks.
The group would be subject to an additional round of scrutiny, city officials said, if it presented the city with a formal offer.
“We're not going to move quickly on this,” said Steve Tillman, a member of the authority.
“It will definitely be debated in an open, public forum.”
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