Schools close amid discipline questions
CNN.COM, May 31, 2004

ST. LOUIS, Missouri (AP) -- A religious boarding school questioned for its strict disciplining of troubled teens has shut its doors, ending a run recently marked by dwindling enrollment and legal problems.

Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy in southeast Missouri closed last week, along with its sister school, Palm Lane Academy in Florida, officials said.

"It is just time," Mountain Park Principal Sam Gerhardt told the Wayne County Journal-Banner recently. "We've been in some battles for the last couple of years. It is just time for us to do something different."

A woman who answered the telephone at Mountain Park refused to comment Saturday, and calls to Gerhardt's home Saturday night went unanswered. The school's Web site has been deactivated.

"I just don't know what the situation is," the school's lawyer, John Oliver, said Saturday. "I'm not privy to any of those decisions."

Mountain Park students already have returned home or been transferred to similar reform schools, the Journal-Banner reported. The school and its property have been put up for sale, the newspaper said.

The school had seen enrollment drop from more than 150 teenagers to about 40 this year, according to recent testimony from school officials.

Mountain Park and its Florida counterpart relied on Christian fundamentalist teachings, strict discipline and corporal punishment to work with teenagers with behavioral problems.

But the reform school, which opened in 1987, has long attracted critics, particularly after a Florida teen was killed at Mountain Park by two other students in 1996.

Last month, a federal jury awarded a former student $20,000 for allegedly being shoved against a sink by a worker. Jordan Blair alleged he was falsely imprisoned while at the school in 2001, and that disciplining there violated his civil rights. He also accused Mountain Park of wrongly denying outside communication, limiting bathroom breaks and letting students sleep as little as five hours a day.

Oliver has asked for a retrial, and called the allegations "part of a crusade by a few individuals against fundamentalist Christian schools."

Mountain Park's founder, the Rev. Bob Wills, previously ran a Hattiesburg, Mississippi, school that was sued for allegedly paddling pregnant teens and detaining a 19-year-old against her will. A settlement required changes at the school, but Wills closed it and relocated to Missouri in 1987.

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