Secrets in the Schoolhouse Secrets in the Schoolhouse
WEAR-TV, November 30, 2004

It's a desperate situation for many parents -- their child is unruly, rebellious, and out-of-control, and they don't know where to turn.

Many find hope in private schools that promise a "faith based" program.

In Florida, these private schools are allowed to operate with virtually no state oversight.

We've looked inside two of these private academies here in Northwest Florida, and tonight, in the first of three reports, we'll hear from former students and parents who told Channel Three's Mollye Barrows their "Secrets in the Schoolhouse."

"We just want to save these little girls," says 27-year-old Jennifer Connolly as she stands outside Victory Christian Academy, protesting the private, faith-based school.

The protest was organized by the woman standing next to her, another former Victory student, Rebecca Ramirez.

They say what goes on here at the isolated school in Jay is not their idea of a Christian program.

They traveled across the country to protest the academy years after leaving.

"We just don't want them to hurt like we hurt," Connolly insists.

Michael Palmer opened the all-girls boarding school in 1990, promising christian based education and training for children with behavioral a price of 12-hundred dollars a month.

Desperate parents at wits end with their children running away, using drugs, or just refusing to follow family rules often turn to Palmer for help.

Bonnie Ramirez, from California, sent her daughter to Jay in 1992.

"They seemed to be really nice people and they seemed very interested in helping the girls," Ramirez recalls.

But her 28-year-old daughter Rebecca says "nice" is not how she remembers the academy.

"It was emotional and mental breakdown for sure," says Ramirez. "They made you feel horrible about yourself. To the point where you were worthless, then that was where they could make you do anything they wanted to do and just make you believe that you can't live without this school."

Some say staff controls every aspect of their lives from talking or using the bathroom to eating.

"They always used to threaten us. If you throw it up, we'll make you eat it. And I know girls have had to do that," Ramirez says.

Students say the program tries to mold girls into a fundamentalist image of a young lady.

Ramirez and Connolly call it "behavior modification."

They say new arrivals are banned from speaking or looking at most of the other students for the first three month.

They say, they can only talk to their "buddy," an older, more experienced student assigned to watch the new girl and ensure she follows the rules.

Communication with the outside is also cut off, even phonecalls from parents, for the first three months.

Once allowed, all mail is monitored as well as phone calls which are limited to thirty minutes, once a month.

"They read your letters, so if you wrote something bad, they didn't send it. And they'd call you a liar anyways," says 17-year-old Kara Botos, who left the school a year ago.

Some former students also say education is not the priority, instead the girls say they spend hours reading the Bible and in Chapel.

"Over and over again telling us the same thing, that we were horrible girls. That we were going to burn in fire and brimstone and our flesh was going to burn off, like telling us all the same things. They never changed, they were consistently the same thing with a different verse," says Botos.

Other complaints include demeaning or unreasonable punishment for infractions like running away, crying or attempting suicide.

Some say girls are put in the "Get Right Room," a small pantry like space, for hours, even weeks.

They're only allowed out to sleep and use the restroom.

Botos says she was sent to the "Get Right Room" several times.

"They put preaching tapes on the whole time. If you were acting up they would sit on you," Botos describes.

Police reports show more than a dozen girls have tried to run away since the school opened in 1990.

In 1997, one student reported, Palmer choked her, sat on her, and pulled her hair.

Palmer denied the allegations, but told officers he did have to restrain the girl.

Botos and Ramirez say the staff prides themselves on not using corporal punishment, instead they say the girls are encouraged to keep other students in line.

A Sheriff's deputy was called to the school in September of last year...when a 16-year-old girl fought attempts to put her in the room.

The deputy reports four teen students and a 27-year-old male staff member wrestled the girl to the ground and held here there forty minutes...on the orders of another staff member.

These students aren't the first to complain.

Not long after Palmer opened the academy in Jay, California courts forced him to close a similar lock down facility he owned near San Diego because he refused to be licensed by the state.

California authorities looked into a variety of complaints, including abuse.

The state also investigated the accidental death of a 15-year-old girl who died while helping to build a new part of the school.

Palmer was eventually cited for operating without a license, but he continued to run his academy, claiming freedom of religion.

In 1991, authorities raided his school...and found a "Get Right Room," evidence of humiliating and intimidating punishment, and a bin full of medications, including one to treat worms.

Just this past september, Mexican authorities closed a school Palmer owned just south of the border...after immigration and child abuse complaints.

17-year-old Melanie Silveria said she was beaten, tied up, and ridiculed while she was there.

"There's no love, there's no compassion," Silveria insists. "Girls run to different things to find love. It's not a good environment for people who are already emotionally damaged."

Palmer refused to talk to the media about the protest.

Palmer sent a staff member to tell two reporters to leave.

"Do you think Mr. Palmer would be available," reporter Mollye Barrows asks.

"He said that you're trespassing. He wanted me to come out here and tell you to leave," the staff members replies. He refused to give his name or job description at the school.

Palmer did talk to Channel 3, off camera, prior to the protest.

Palmer says the girls lie and many of their complaints are unfounded.

There are those who say Palmer's staff provided guidance and the nurturing they needed.

Joanna Rosado spent two years at Victory Christian Academy and left last year.

"It's a wonderful school. It did a lot for me," Rosado insists. "The only reason Victory doesn't help a girl is because the girl doesn't want to be helped."

Rosado says the focus is self-improvement.

She says the "Get Right Room," or "Time Out Room" as Palmer renamed it, is partly for girls who are a danger to themselves or others.

She say even the fiery preaching is aimed at achieving salvation through faith.

"Sometimes I felt they were against me," Rosado says, "but in my heart I knew I was doing something wrong."

Palmer insists his academy is a success and parents across the country want to send their daughters here.

Coming up Wednesday night we'll hear from a former student who says Palmer used God to justify raping her.

An alumnus pickets Victory Christian Academy

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