LEXINGTON - When he started the Abounding Grace School for Boys in 1995, Stan Mitchell knew little about running a boarding school, but he knew a lot about troubled boys.
After all, he had been one.
With only their religious faith and a strict code of discipline, Mitchell and his wife, Lee, opened the school 10 years ago. They say they wanted to give boys a safe place to learn new ways.
But some of the boys tell a different story: They say the couple subjected them to a level of punishment that crossed the line to physical abuse.
The school stopped enrolling students a year ago after the Davidson County Department of Social Services charged the Mitchells with child abuse and removed all but one of the boys, who was 18 and chose to stay.
They say they are innocent, but they've closed the school for good. On Monday, the Mitchells are scheduled to be arraigned in Davidson County Superior Court on charges of felony child abuse inflicting serious injury.
The parents of their accusers want to make sure they will never again run such a school.
"This is a place I thought they were going to give him love," said Bridgit Wingert, who sent her son, Rex Blevins, to Abounding Grace. "Bottom line is that we don't want the Mitchells to ever be able to take care of children again."
Drawn to troubled youth
Though they have only a limited education - Stan Mitchell has a GED and Lee Mitchell didn't finish high school - they say they felt a calling to educate troubled youth. Stan Mitchell says he wanted them to avoid making some of the mistakes he had made.
His criminal record includes several driving offenses and charges of drug possession and breaking-and-entering. He once spent a year in jail.
"I was a hellion," said Stan Mitchell, 44. "I can't tell you how many times I had been to jail as a teenager. But God saved me and turned me around, and I wanted to save the youth from the mess I had to go through as a kid."
Within a year of the school's opening, nine students were enrolled and the Mitchells built a house in Caswell County and moved there.
The boys followed a highly structured routine that included an enforced period of silence each morning. They were required to go to church and do chores and schoolwork. They ate meals together and worked on a buddy system. Breaking the rules brought swats - or "licks" - with a paddle.
When the school moved from Yanceyville to Lexington in 2000, to be affiliated with Believer's Baptist Church, the Mitchells registered Abounding Grace as a boarding school with the Division of Non-Public Education. The school was free until 2002, when they began charging $400 a month for the 18-month program; church donations also helped pay the school's bills. Most of the boys came to the school at age 14 or 15; none stayed long enough to finish high school there. About 100 have attended Abounding Grace since it started as a home school in Greensboro.
Only a handful - about six of the state's 600 private schools - operate as family-run boarding schools with strict rules such as those at Abounding Grace, said Rod Helder, the division director. The school complied with all the requirements for nonpublic education, but the department has little oversight of how the individual schools are run and offers little protection when accusations of abuse are made, Helder said.
"That's something that goes with the turf when you start a school that deals with at-risk or out-of-control kids like this," he said.
Parents desperate for change
Most of the parents who sent their boys there were desperate for change.
"We knew he needed something, a structured environment where he would have to mind someone else's rules," said Phillip Boseman, whose son, Phillip, attended Abounding Grace. "It was getting rough. He was on probation. I took him there and left him and said 'if you don't ever speak to me again, at least I know I could have saved your life.'"
The Mitchells weren't in the dark about the boys' family relationships and backgrounds, and they knew they were taking a risk with the school. Parents knew that their children would be punished for misbehaving.
A code of conduct made it clear that for each violation of the rules, a boy could get up to five licks with a paddle. Corporal punishment is legal in North Carolina schools, but the law leaves it up to the administrator to decide what is reasonable, Helder said.
Everyone - the boys, their parents and the Mitchells - was required to sign off on the rules.
But how far did the school go in enforcing the rules? Documents from Caswell and Davidson counties show that complaints were made about conditions at Abounding Grace years before the current allegations of abuse were made.
According to letters from both counties' social-service departments to Helder's division, Caswell County investigated four reports about the school between April 1997 and February 1999. Three reports of neglect were unsubstantiated, and the other investigation "did not reveal any information to suggest that the boys are used for labor, inappropriately disciplined, 'afraid of you' or not being home schooled within the appropriate guidelines," according to letters from Caswell County to the Mitchells.
In 2001, Davidson County social workers also investigated the school after getting a report about unsafe living conditions there. What they found during that investigation raised concerns about excessive punishment.
Officials with the Davidson County Department of Social Services did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The N.C. Division of Social Services declined to comment on specifics of the case.
In a May 7, 2001, letter to Charles Harris, then the chief of the children's-services section of the state division of social services, Davidson County social workers laid out the details of the investigation and their concerns about the school.
The converted storage building had no sprinkler system or smoke detectors, and had only one exit, down a wooden staircase, the letter said. The school was later brought up to code, according to county officials.
But questions about physical abuse lingered. Two of the boys told social workers that they had been hit 200 times with a paddle that the workers described as a "typical school paddle" - about 18 inches long and more than an inch thick. One of the boys said he had bruises on his buttocks, but refused to show them to the social worker. All of the boys said that they were not allowed to speak until lunchtime every day and that they were silenced for the first week after arriving at the school. One child told social workers that he was silenced for a month after he spoke when he wasn't supposed to.
Parents told social workers that they thought the strict rules at Abounding Grace were appropriate for their children. They knew that their children were getting licks and that "Brother Mitchell" administered four licks for each act of insubordination.
The letter ended with a request that the state look into the school while the local agency continued its investigation.
Reports of abuse in July 2004
County social workers didn't contact the school again until July 21, 2004, when they came to investigate reports of abuse that led to the current charges.
This time, the reports came from the parents of two boys who hadn't returned to school after summer vacation.
The Mitchells later learned that the parents called social services with allegations that the boys had been beaten with boat paddles and subjected to long periods of solitary confinement. They also said that boys were sometimes forced to eat their own vomit after becoming sick at the school.
"What they've done is taken truths and stretched them beyond all limits, making them into extremes," Mitchell said.
He doesn't deny that there were paddlings at the school. He also doesn't deny that the boys were sometimes subjected to solitary confinement as an alternative to spanking.
And yes, the boys sometimes vomited. A few of them came into the school with weak stomachs, according to the paperwork submitted by their parents.
But the Mitchells deny ever issuing 200 paddle licks at a time, silencing students for a month, forcing them to ingest their own vomit or abusing them in any other way.
"If I really believed something like that that I heard from my son, I'd be driven like these mothers are," Mitchell said. He believes that the two boys conspired to make up stories of abuse when they found out their parents planned to send them back to the school. "For the life of me, I can't believe that these boys thought it would go this far," he said.
Several parents interviewed for this story said they don't believe the stories of abuse.
"I love the Mitchells," said Wanda Harris, whose son, Wayne Bland, attended Abounding Grace. "I'm disappointed in a couple of the boys because they not only ruined the Mitchells' lives, they've ruined the lives of these other children as well, who were getting the treatment that they needed," she said.
"I know deep in my heart that nothing happened," Harris said.
Since he left the school, Bland said, it's been hard to stay out of trouble. He said he sometimes turns to the Mitchells for advice.
Boseman said he thought the program was good for his son, too.
Mitchells charged with abuse
On July 22, 2004, the day after their initial visit, county social workers returned. They showed the Mitchells pictures of a student with marks and sores on his buttocks and took all the boys from the school.
Mitchell was arrested on one count of misdemeanor child abuse in connection to the marks on the boy, and had no more contact with the boys until the charge was dropped by the district attorney.
Then, on May 16, 2005, Mitchell was indicted on two counts of felony child abuse stemming from the same investigation. Lee Mitchell was also charged; she faces one count of felony child abuse.
District Attorney Garry Frank declined to discuss the case, because of the pending trial.
Mitchell said he feels betrayed. He and his family still live in the school, behind Believer's Baptist Church in Lexington. "When I get up early in the morning and go to church and two full pews ahead of me are empty, two whole pews that used to be filled with boys, empty. We've lost them and we can never gain that back," he said. "All we were trying to do is what the parents asked us to do, give the guys old-fashioned standards and make them act the way boys used to be."
Helder acknowledged that anyone who works with troubled youth is taking a risk. "I think they understand that those types of things can happen," he said. "If someone starts a school for these types of kids, you have to ask, 'Were these kids credible to start with?' It's basically, at this point, the Mitchells' word against the kids' word. It's up to the court to decide which is the more credible party."
• Jessica Guenzel can be reached in Lexington at (336) 248-2074 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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