Fate of Missouri boarding school on hold as hearings delayed

Hearings are again on hold in the state of Missouri’s effort to shut down a Christian boarding school whose staff members have been accused of abuse by numerous current and former students.

Cedar County Associate Circuit Judge Thomas Pyle on Tuesday canceled hearings that had been scheduled for Thursday and Friday to consider Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s request to close Agape Boarding School. New hearing dates have not been set.

Pyle also granted the request of Agape attorney John Schultz to appoint a guardian ad litem for each boy at Agape. A guardian ad litem represents the child’s interest in court. Pyle also agreed with Schultz’s request that the parents be made parties in the case and that the state identify students rather than using only their initials.

“We are pleased that the judge granted all the relief that we requested,” Schultz said. “Agape remains open, and it is committed to safely caring for and educating the students.”

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Schmitt, said the office is reviewing Pyle’s decision.

“We are still fully committed to protecting the health and safety of the students at Agape Boarding School, and we’re not giving up on those students,” Nuelle said in a statement.

Schmitt’s office filed a motion in early September to close the school, calling it “an immediate health and safety concern for the children residing at Agape.” Later that month, 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.

The school once housed about 100 boys. Enrollment has dipped to 45, Schultz said. The decrease in enrollment has forced Agape to lay off around a dozen of its 50 staff members and move the boys to five group homes rather than board them at the school, Schultz said.

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 will 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.

A petition filed by Schmitt’s office cites several abuse allegations at Agape, including many from current students as told to state child welfare workers who have been stationed on-site over the past month.

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 a classmate 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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