Rehabilitation or child abuse? Rehabilitation or child abuse?
By Sara Burnett Daily Herald Staff Writer
Daily Herald, July 11, 2004

At first, Bethel Baptist Girls' Academy seemed like a good place for Jayme Bahrenburg.

At 14, the West Chicago girl had been arrested two times. She was skipping school, had run away from home and was using drugs. Her dad thought she might try to kill herself.

Bethel, located in rural Mississippi, boasted a family atmosphere in which troubled girls are broken down by discipline and physical training, then rebuilt through God's love.

The girls would refer to the director, Herman Fountain Jr., as "Brother Fountain."

He and the rest of the staff would address each girl as "young lady," according to the school's handbook. By graduation, they would be "better prepared spiritually, physically and mentally for life's challenges."

"Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life," the handbook stated.

But what Jayme Bahrenburg found at Bethel was a world where girls were physically and mentally abused, where medical needs were ignored and tactics bordering on torture were used in an attempt to reprogram them, Mississippi child welfare officials say.

In May, Mississippi officials confronted the school and removed 38 girls - including at least four other Chicago-area girls - because of conditions there.

According to interviews conducted by the Mississippi Department of Human Services, it was not unusual for girls to be forced to exercise - sometimes in a sewage pond - for up to five hours or until they vomited.

In at least one instance, a girl was forced to sit alone in a room from 5 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. for eight straight days, listening to audio tapes of Fountain's father, the Rev. Herman Fountain Sr., preaching.

And Fountain Jr. regularly referred to his charges not as "young lady" but as "stupid," "freak show" and "whore," according to reports of interviews conducted by the investigators.

According to Jayme, Fountain's name for her was "devil worshipper."

"I'd rather spend three years in jail than one month in that place," she said in a recent interview at her mother's suburban home. "I'm so serious."

Jayme's mom, Laura Bahrenburg, pulled her out of Bethel April 30 - about one month before Mississippi officials stepped in and removed the remaining students.

The state's move drew mixed reviews from parents, some of whom say Fountain and the rest of the Bethel staff worked miracles with their children.

One of those parents, Jeff Lashuay of Elwood, just southwest of Joliet, doesn't believe the allegations.

Lashuay sent his oldest daughter to Bethel after she started shoplifting and drinking, he said. She came back a different person.

So when he feared a younger daughter was heading down a similarly bad path, he sent her to Bethel as well.

Brittany, who was among the girls removed May 19, told her father some of the same stories reported by investigators.

Lashuay says it's possible the incidents were blown out of proportion by "new girls" who wanted to go home, and that "one person's perception of abuse may be different" from another's.

"You have to do something to get (the girls') attention," he said.

Since the girls were removed, Bethel has continued to operate. As of late June, two girls were enrolled.

This week, the Mississippi attorney general's office said it is working with Fountain to make changes at the school.

Fountain, whose family also runs a nearby academy for boys that has been shut down in the past because of abuse, denies any wrongdoing.

He also says he is looking forward to having the school filled to capacity once again.

That's a goal Laura Bahrenburg hopes will never be realized. Though Jayme was at Bethel for only about 100 days, the harm was irreparable, Laura says.

For that, Bethel should pay - and not just by forfeiting the roughly $25,000-per-year tuition, she says.

"I would hope this place is literally closed down," Laura Bahrenburg said. "These kids have not been helped. They've been hurt more."

900 miles from home

Once they made the decision to send Jayme to Bethel, the Bahernburgs paid $3,000 for a couple of people from the school to come get her, and roughly $12,000 more in tuition.

Jayme had just been released from Linden Oaks at Edward Hospital in Naperville, where she had spent time for depression after running away for a week with her then-boyfriend.

Her father thought a "reform school" would be the best place for her. Her mother, who is separated from Jayme's father, wasn't so sure, but eventually relented and sent Jayme off with a bag of clothes, a portable compact disc player and several CDs.

She gave the couple, who said only that their names were Roxie and Danny, money to return Jayme's belongings to her once they reached Petal, Miss.

Staff from the school had explained that Jayme wouldn't get to keep any of her things when she arrived. She would be issued a uniform - a used skirt and shirt for school and church, and used shorts and T-shirts for physical training.

It took about 16 hours to arrive at the rural school about 100 miles north of New Orleans.

Jayme was angry the whole way. After she arrived at Bethel and was sitting down to talk with Fountain about the rules, she lost it.

She said he explained to her that at Bethel everyone got up by 5 a.m. and was in bed with lights out by 8:30 p.m. She would have no phone privileges for the first month and just one, four-minute shower each day.

They would have devotions and Bible memorization sessions every day and attend church three days a week.

"I cried," Jayme recalls. "I just cried."

Fountain was nice to her that night, Jayme says. He told her everything would be OK, that she would come to love God and appreciate her life.

But first, he said, they would have to dye her hair.

Jayme had colored her hair jet black. It matched the black clothes and dark lipstick and nail polish she liked.

Fountain said it was too sinister, so he instructed a staff member to dye it blonde. It took three applications before the black color was covered up. By then, Jayme said, her hair was like straw. It fell out in clumps.

According to the school handbook, each new arrival goes through an orientation period in which they are to focus on self-discipline through physical activity and how to be "a proper young lady."

To move out of the orientation level, girls must read and study the book of I Timothy and write a 500-word essay, the handbook states. They also must learn basic kitchen duties and household chores and learn to cultivate, plant and grow their own gardens.

Once that level is complete, girls may move up the ladder, through each of three levels named after women from the Bible.

At the Hannah level, the girls get uncensored phone calls and more frequent visits with family. They also must be responsible for dorm cleanups, read the books of I and II Samuel and learn "intermediate" kitchen duties like "basic desserts, gelatins, salads and table settings."

At the Ruth level, each young lady is assigned a new student to whom they are to show "love, wisdom and friendship."

The highest level is the Esther level, in which they write two essays, prepare a scrapbook of their stay at Bethel and are in charge of preparing a whole meal for the school.

From 8 a.m. to noon and again from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., the girls attended classes, Jayme said.

Bethel uses a Christian-based curriculum, so virtually everything was related to religion, Jayme said. Classes were also much easier than at West Chicago High School.

For example, in Bible reading class, girls would fill in blank words missing from Bible verses. In earth science, they learned that God made it rain for 40 days and 40 nights "because he was mad," Jayme said. In history class, they learned about Christopher Columbus - a lesson Jayme said she studied sometime around fourth grade.

The school had one computer, which each girl used for 15 minutes per week to practice typing.

Almost immediately, Jayme began writing letters home, begging her mom to come and get her. She gave the letters to Bethel staff to mail; Laura says she never got them.

Back home, Larua Bahernburg felt something wasn't right.

They had received little information from the school, which had come recommended from a friend of her husband's who sent his son to the boy's academy.

What information she did get came on typed pages rather than glossy brochures. She never saw any photos of the school. The couple who had taken Jayme to Bethel did not return Jayme's belongings. And when she called the school, administrators wouldn't let her talk to her daughter.

So in March - about six weeks after sending Jayme off - Laura drove to Petal, Miss.

She had an address, but no directions, so she stopped to ask some locals.

They'd never heard of the school, they said.

She called the Mississippi State Police.

They didn't know where it was, either.

She called a friend with a global positioning system. He couldn't find it.

Eventually she met a pest control worker. He called some people who thought they might know where it was.

Hours later, Laura pulled up Victory Ranch Road to find a long brick building tucked deep in the woods.

As it turned out, the trip was for nothing.

Jayme was still going through orientation, the staff said. She hadn't earned the privilege of having visits. They wouldn't let Laura look in any windows, much less see her daughter.

Laura was back in Illinois just a few more weeks when she got a phone call from someone associated with the school. Laura has declined to reveal the person's name, but says the woman told her of specific abuses and urged her to go get her daughter. Laura left almost immediately.

On April 30, as Jayme sat in devotions, a staff member came in to say her mother was there.

Seeing her mom, Jayme recalls, was "like walking in and seeing one of my favorite bands."

As they drove home, and in bits and pieces over the weeks that followed, Jayme shared more and more about what Bethel was like.

On May 19, Mississippi child welfare officials say they found out, too.

Life at Bethel

According to investigators' reports, the Department of Human Services received a tip May 16 about wrongdoing at the school. Though they won't say who tipped them off, Fountain has pointed his finger at a former staff member.

The tip included an account of an incident that occurred shortly before Jayme Bahernburg left the school.

According to Jayme, one of the girls who had moved up the Bethel ladder - referred to at the school as a "leader" - was given permission by Fountain to punish a newer girl if she misbehaved.

If Monica swore, for instance, the leader could slap her on the face.

On this particular night, several girls were awakened about 10:30 to the sound of someone being beaten outside. The girls determined it was Monica's leader who was beating her, and that no staff members were doing anything to stop it.

Jayme claims that the next morning, staff members overheard the girls talking about the fight. Staff members called Fountain and told him the girls were planning a strike, in which they would refuse to work or go to school.

Fountain drove to the campus, where he confronted the girls.

According to the account he gave Mississippi officials, Fountain pushed a chair and a table into a wall.

At least a half-dozen girls, as well as Jayme, say an irate Fountain threw chairs at them, overturned the table and called them names.

Fountain denied those reports, but admitted he sometimes called the girls "freak show," but "in a joking manner," the reports state.

The girls' accounts of life at Bethel extend beyond that incident, according to the reports, including:

One girl, who had been at the academy for a year, said she was forced to do a "bend and thrust" exercise - essentially lowering her body to the ground, kicking out her legs, then pulling them back in and standing again - for five hours because she used the phone without permission.

Another girl, on crutches, said she hurt her ankle while exercising and no one took her to a doctor until a week and a half later. A girl with scoliosis said she and her dad had asked school officials on two occasions to take her to a doctor and they did not.

A girl said a male staff member hit her upside her head because she didn't want to eat her food. Later, he told the girl that if she hated herself so much, she should "just hang herself from the ceiling and that he was willing to give her his belt," the report states.

Another girl said one of the leaders knocked her to the ground and started kicking her. A staff member encouraged the abuse, she said. When it was over, her head hurt so bad "she couldn't put her head on the pillow at night," the report stated.

Not all the girls had bad things to say, however.

One girl said the home was no worse than other homes she had been in - and that she has been in "several." Another said she'd rather be at Bethel than at home.

Another girl said she loved Fountain "to death," and that he hadn't done anything to her.

But she also admitted she'd seen the girls who went on strike be forced to jump in the sewage pond then walk around in the filth all day. To eat, they had to put their plates on the driveway and eat "in a stooping position," the girl said.

Jayme was among those girls. So was another girl from the Elgin area, who could not be reached for comment. The family of another girl, from Chicago, did not return phone calls.

Lashuay's daughter, Brittany, was at the school at the time of the strike, but he declined to allow her to speak to the Daily Herald.

Around 4 p.m. May 19, after a day of interviews, staff members from the Department of Human Services decided it had evidence of emotional, physical and verbal abuse at the school and decided to remove all 38 students.

When the girls, gathered in the dorm, learned the news, they began yelling, according to the report.

"Some were indicating they were happy and others were not happy to be removed," the report states. "Some were simply scared about the unknown."

A staff member came into the room and said a prayer with the girls, the report states. Then they were loaded onto a bus, in sheriff's cars and with social workers and taken to a nearby National Guard camp to spend the night and await word from their parents, whom the department began contacting that afternoon.

More than one month later, the school has accepted two new students. No criminal charges have been filed against Fountain, and Mississippi officials will not comment on whether charges are possible.

In Mississippi, private schools like Bethel must "register" - essentially file their name - with the state. But they do not have to be licensed or accredited, as most private and residential schools in Illinois are.

Some lawmakers are trying to change that in the wake of the Bethel incident, but arguments about the separation of church and state stand in their way.

Fountain did not return phone calls from the Daily Herald, but he has told local media he is willing to work with that state's attorney general's office on some concerns but that some of the proposed changes - which neither side are discussing - are "nonsense."

He also has said he and the staff are looking forward to having the school filled to capacity once again.

Seeing the school stay open, both Laura and Jayme say, would be the worst ending to their story.

They already are fighting with the school to get copies of Jayme's academic transcripts so she can start at another school this fall.

Laura also is considering legal action to recoup some of the money the family paid.

But the issue, they say, is more than that.

"I would hate to see more girls go back there," Jayme said. "When you're there, they make you feel so low about everything, that you're nothing. And you believe it."

"That's not a place," Laura added, "to get better."

Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.

School: Founder hopes to fill institution with students again

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