Parents of eight former Bethel Boys Academy cadets on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit in Gulfport, accusing academy owners, operators and employees of abusing their sons.
The parents are individually seeking at least $75,000 in damages, said their Fort Smith, Ark., attorney, Oscar Stilley.
Stilley said Bethel representatives lied to his clients, who sent their boys to the military style academy because they believed it offered a Christian-based education alternative. Instead, the boys were beaten and forced to work at the academy, he said. "(Bethel) doesn't have a bit of honesty," Stilley said. "(Cadets) basically were turned into slaves. They were even told to beat up other kids." (Emphasis added)
Academy director John Fountain laughed Tuesday when asked about claims of abuse at the school.
"These are low-income families who want something for nothing," he said.
Cheryle Strueble of Nebraska is among the parents suing. Her son, Morgan, was pulled out of the academy three days after he got there in May 2003, she said. The then 17-year-old had a black eye and several bruises on his body, Strueble said.
"The bottom line is we got our money back," Strueble said. "We don't pay for torture. We are parents who can cough up $25,000. But we expect more than torture." (Emphasis added)
She and the other parents decided to file a lawsuit, she said, after reports to the state Attorney General's Office, the state Department of Human Services and the state Health Department did not result in criminal charges.
George County District Attorney Anthony Lawrence did not return phone calls.
"(The lawsuit) is for all of those kids we don't already know about," Strueble said. "None of us want a dime. I want (the academy) shut down. It's not what we paid for."
She and her husband, Roger, took their son to Bethel because they were concerned about his behavior, she said. His grades had dropped and he had been caught smoking marijuana, Strueble said. They found information about the academy on the Internet and called John Fountain and his father, Herman Fountain.
Last week, the state Health Department opened an investigation at the school after receiving complaints from the state Department of Human Services and the Attorney General's office, said health department spokeswoman Liz Sharlot. The investigation is ongoing, she said.
It is among at least three investigations launched at the boys' academy and the companion girls' academy in Petal.
Parent complaints of abuse and neglect at the boys' academy in 2003 led to the adoption of new policies. The Fountains didn't admit to wrongdoing.
In May, the Human Services Department removed about 40 girls from the girls' academy after it had gotten abuse complaints. The girls have not been allowed to return.
Children also were removed from one of Herman Fountain's homes in 1988. State welfare officials raided Bethel Home for Children— the academy's predecessor— and removed 72 abused and neglected children. A judge closed the home in 1990. Herman Fountain reopened it in 1994 as Bethel Boys' Academy. The girls' academy opened in 1999.
Defendants in the lawsuit include John Fountain, Herman Fountain and Bethel Baptist Church of Lucedale Inc.
In April, Stilley won a similar lawsuit against a Missouri Christian-based academy. The judgment is being appealed.
Read the 42-page complaint at http://nospank.net/complaint2tc.pdf
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