New judge lets Missouri boarding school stay open for now

Sep 27, 2022, 2:26 PM | Updated: 2:57 pm

A Missouri judge on Tuesday allowed a Christian boarding school to remain open for now, scheduling two days of hearings in October to determine its fate after multiple current and former students alleged widespread abuse.

Cedar County Associate Circuit Judge Thomas Pyle’s ruling came a day after he took over the case involving Agape Boarding School in Stockton. The Missouri attorney general’s office had asked Pyle to close the school after requesting the new judge for the case previously presided over by Cedar County Circuit Judge David Munton. The state didn’t say why it sought a new judge.

Pyle also approved the state’s request to again place Missouri Department of Social Services workers at Agape. On Monday, Munton lifted the order allowing state workers at the school. They had been there to monitor for abuse since Sept. 8.

Two days of hearings to determine Agape’s fate are scheduled for Oct. 13-14.

Agape’s attorney, John Schultz, said he was pleased with the judge’s decision allowing Agape to continue operating.

“The students at Agape are not facing immediate harm as the State argued,” Schultz said in a statement. “We monitor the students 24/7 and will continue to do so with the DSS workers returning. We look forward to having a trial in this matter beginning on October 13th where actual evidence, versus unfounded allegations, can be heard and considered.”

A spokesman for Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt declined comment.

Schmitt’s office filed a motion earlier this month to close the school, calling it “an immediate health and safety concern for the children residing at Agape.” The school once served over 100 boys. The current number is unclear. School officials have declined to respond to interview requests.

Last week, the Republican speaker of the Missouri House, Rob Vescovo, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Teresa Moore in Kansas City also urging closure of Agape. His letter said the situation is “more far-reaching and contains more deeply-rooted corruption than we are able to address solely at the state level.”

Vescovo’s letter didn’t explain his allegations of corruption and he has declined interview requests.

Agape’s website calls it a boarding school “for teenage boys exhibiting bad behavior or failing academics. Our mission is to turn around your troubled teen.” Its parent handbook says it is a ministry of Agape Baptist Church, also in Stockton. The school opened in 1996.

Abuse allegations at Agape and a nearby Christian boarding school for girls, Circle of Hope, resulted in a new Missouri law last year that among other things established minimum health and safety requirements for boarding schools, required background checks for employees, and required adequate food, clothing and medical care for students.

Last year, Agape’s longtime doctor, David Smock, was charged with child sex crimes and five employees were charged with low-level abuse counts. Schmitt’s office contended that 22 workers should have been charged, and with more serious crimes. But in Missouri, only the local prosecutor can file charges, and Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney Ty Gaither has said no additional employees would be charged.

Circle of Hope, in Humansville, Missouri, closed amid an investigation in 2020 and its husband-and-wife co-founders face 99 charges, including child abuse and neglect and sex crimes.

The petition filed by Schmitt’s office cites several abuse allegations at Agape, including many from current students as told to DSS workers on-site.

One student was slammed through a magnetically-locked door and then restrained for about 40 minutes, several current students said.

In another case, a student said he saw another student punched in the stomach by a staff member while other staff held the student, who was then allegedly placed in handcuffs for about two weeks except for visits to the bathroom. The punishment was because the student refused to do jumping jacks, according to the court filing.

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New judge lets Missouri boarding school stay open for now