Baptist boarding schools closes in Missouri, Florida

Associated Press/May 30, 2004
By Jim Suhr

St. Louis -- A southeast Missouri religious reform school questioned for its strict disciplining of troubled teenagers has closed, ending a run marked lately by dwindling enrollment and legal dustups over its methods.

Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy, founded by a man who once operated a controversial school in Mississippi, closed Friday, along with its sister school, Palm Lane Academy in Florida, the school's principal said.

"It is just time," Mountain Park Principal Sam Gerhardt told the Wayne County Journal-Banner. "We've been in some battles for the last couple of years. It is just time for us to do something different."

A woman who answered the telephone Saturday at Mountain Park, located about 110 miles south of St. Louis, refused to comment. She said Gerhardt was unavailable but might publicly discuss the matter within days.

Calls to Gerhardt's home Saturday night went unanswered.

The school's Web site - http://www.mountainparkacademy - has been deactivated, and the school's attorney, John Oliver, said Saturday, "I just don't know what the situation is."

"I'm not privy to any of those decisions," Oliver said, adding he hoped to speak Monday with Mountain Park officials.

Mountain Park's students already have returned home or been transferred to similar reform schools, the Journal-Banner reported. The paper said the school and its property have been put up for sale.

Mountain Park and its Florida counterpart both relied on Christian fundamentalist teachings, strict discipline and corporal punishment to work with teenagers with behavioral problems.

But Mountain Park has long attracted critics, particularly after a Florida teen was killed there by two other students in 1996.

Mountain Park's founder, the Rev. Bob Wills, previously ran a Hattiesburg, Miss., school that was sued in 1982 for allegedly paddling pregnant teens and detaining a 19-year-old against her will. A settlement required changes at the school, but Wills ultimately closed it and relocated to Missouri in 1987.

Over the years, Mountain Park has seen its enrollment drop from more than 150 teenagers to, according to testimony from school officials last month, just about 40 this year.

In Missouri, where state law generally exempts religious boarding schools from state regulation and oversight, Mountain Park has had competition, some with their own legal problems.

In northeast Missouri, the discipline-minded Heartland Christian Academy sued after authorities and juvenile officials took 115 children from the rural complex by buses in an October 2001 raid.

At the time, juvenile officers cited concern for the children's safety after a series of abuse allegations against Heartland, which openly relies on corporal punishment. The children later were allowed to return to the school, located about 150 miles north of St. Louis.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in St. Louis permanently barred juvenile authorities from again removing all students from nondenominational Heartland without a proper hearing.

No Heartland officials have been convicted of wrongdoing.

Last month, federal jurors in Cape Girardeau awarded former Mountain Park student Jordan Blair $20,000 for allegedly being shoved against a sink by a worker. Earlier in that civil trial, a federal judge ruled that the school did not violate federal labor laws when it required the Arkansas teenager to do chores without pay.

Oliver called the allegations "part of a crusade by a few individuals against fundamentalist Christian schools." On Saturday, Oliver said he has asked that the case be retried.

Blair had alleged he was falsely imprisoned while at the school in 2001, and that the school's disciplining violated his civil rights. He also accused Mountain Park of wrongly denying outside communication, limiting bathroom breaks and letting students sleep as little as five hours a day.

Blair later transferred to Florida's Palm Lane Academy but bolted from there while on an errand.

Most of Blair's lawsuit had been tossed out before last month's trial.

Blair's attorney had cast Mountain Park as a veritable labor camp, though the judge sided with Mountain Park's insistence that payless chores were a key part of rescuing troubled youths.

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