Jordan Blair has vivid memories of the treatment he and other students received at Mountain Park Baptist Boarding School, a private reform school in Patterson, Mo., north of Poplar Bluff. He says beatings, sleep deprivation and isolation from the outside world were part of the curriculum.
"There were other kids getting slammed around, pushed around, real aggressive behavior,” said Blair, 19. “I would sit there and cry myself to sleep at night knowing that I'm standing there, I’m watching this happen and not doing anything about it."
Blair’s parents sent him to the school in 2001 at age 16 to keep him from having to go to an Arkansas juvenile facility. A judge in Crawford County, Ark., ruled Blair was a juvenile delinquent after convicting him of making a terroristic threat. The former student remembers severe consequences for misbehavior at Mountain Park, which is a mission of the Mountain Park Baptist Church.
"We have sleep deprivation,” said Blair. “Bathroom privileges are extremely limited. You are watched. You have someone who is within what they call slapping distance."
Blair was only at the school for a few weeks before he was transferred to a sister school in Florida. He later escaped from that school.
Blair, who now lives in Alma, Ark., sued Mountain Park, its employees and its owners in federal court. He claimed staff members falsely imprisoned him. He also said the discipline violated his civil rights. A judge threw out most of the lawsuit but, earlier this month, a jury in Cape Girardeau ordered the school to pay Blair $20,000 because a staff member shoved him against a sink on his first day at the school. The school’s attorney says he will appeal the verdict.
"In jail, you have certain guidelines and rules and everything,” said Blair. “Well, when you go there, you don't know what those rules are. You have no idea. The state doesn't even know what those rules are."
Representatives of Mountain Park did not respond to a reporter’s request for comments about Blair’s charges.
This isn’t an isolated case. Founders and staff members of other religious based schools in Missouri face criminal charges and civil lawsuits that contend their tough love goes too far.
Desperate parents often turn to private schools because they see them as their last chances to save kids who face problems at school, with the law, or with drugs and alcohol. These tough love schools promise to turn young lives around. Parents pay as much as $1,000 a month.
Missouri seems to attract these schools because the state doesn’t regulate them. No specific laws protect their students. They're not even required to have health department inspections of their cafeterias. [Emphasis added]
A former staff member of Mountain Park started Thanks to Calvary Baptist Church & Boarding Academy near Waynesville. Now the Rev. Nathan Day faces four felony child abuse charges. Prosecutors believe Day beat Christopher Jansen. Missouri State Highway Patrol investigators also believe Day tied Jansen to the back of a lawn mower and an ATV and made him run behind them. Each time he fell, according to an investigator’s report filed with the criminal charges, Rev. Day dragged him a few feet before stopping.
"I have a young man that's grievously injured, was in a catatonic coma for weeks and weeks and weeks and will need treatment the rest of his life," said Tyce Smith, Jansen’s attorney.
The handbook of Thanks to Calvary makes no secret about using corporal punishment. Parents or guardians have to sign an Enrollment Agreement and initial certain sections to acknowledge they understand how children will be treated.
"A maximum of fifteen (15) swats of any kind ... may be administered in a 24-hour period," the Enrollment Agreement says.
Students can also be put in a “Bible Dormitory” and made to wear pajamas and flip-flops, where the lights stay on around the clock. There, students may be forced to sweep a dirt drive and dig a hole with a teaspoon.
In response to a reporter’s telephone calls and letters to Thanks to Calvary, asking for a response to the charges and for a tour, the school's attorney answered with a letter.
"We believe the criminal charges are ridiculous,” the attorney said. “We believe they are greatly exaggerating the supposed 'injuries' that this young man has received."
At least seven religious reform schools are in Missouri. Some moved here from other states.
"Parents need to understand, the state of Missouri needs to understand, what's actually going on," said Blair.
Former state Sen. Roseanne Bentley, R-Springfield, fought hard for regulation in the Legislature but failed to change Missouri’s lack of oversight.
“There's no regulation at all, which is worrisome because the state's responsibility is to the most vulnerable people within the state," said Bentley.
One reform school opened its doors to a reporter and a photographer. Agape Boys Boarding Academy in Stockton, like the other schools, has strict rules and strong religious beliefs but its staff members don't use corporal punishment. A reporter observed misbehaving students doing jumping jacks and standing with their faces to a wall during a meal.
"We do push ups and work details. There are a lot of things we do. We used to do corporal discipline but we've gotten away from it,” said director Jim Clemensen. “I believe it in. I think it’s right but, as far as us here, we decided not to do it."
Agape’s methods seem to be working. Students say the school has turned around their lives.
"If you look at my past and look at the stuff I was doing and look at my future, I might be a pastor and it’s like, ‘Wow!’” said Lane Gerry, a student at Agape.
Blair hopes his lawsuit will encourage other schools to change their policies.
"These people are going to be held accountable for what they do, not only by some 19-year-old kid but hopefully by the State of Missouri," he said.
Besides Bentley, other lawmakers from both parties have, at different times, proposed bills that would regulate these schools. A state senator from St. Louis has a bill pending this session but doesn’t think it will get out of committee.
See related: "Mountain Park Survivors" at www.mountainparksurvivors.com/
See related: "Mountain Park Horrors" at www.mountainparkhorrors.netfirms.com/
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