Spiritual center takes over boarding school

The Kansas City Star/October 18, 2009

A boot-camp-style boarding school in Kidder, Mo., battered by lawsuits and hounded by the death of one of its students, has closed.

A self-styled spiritual center plans to open in November or December on the grounds of what was most recently the Thayer Learning Center.

"I'm not really too familiar with what was going on there before," said Lakota John, who is opening the White Buffalo Academy. "We've got our own plans."

In a telephone interview from St. George, Utah, John said he stumbled across the facility while visiting Missouri. He envisions an academy that one day might employ 1,000 or more people but will start with a staff of about 10 and a capacity of 150 students.

The heart of the new academy will come from the spirituality of American Indians and other indigenous people that John said he would draw from around the world. For instance, he expects Maori elders from New Zealand to come, along with members of various American tribes. The program also will delve into holistic health, sustainable agriculture, arts, dance and equestrian therapy, he said.

To start, he said, the academy will work with children 12 to 18 years old and eventually expand to serve younger students. He said the focus would not - as was the case with Thayer - be on troubled youths.

"We want the best of the best," John said. "We want the chiefs of tomorrow."

His Web site strikes a slightly different tone: "Our exchange program provides an excellent opportunity for struggling youth to come and learn in a positive and upbeat environment."

His operation, which has erected a pair of teepees, takes over a building erected in the mid-19th century. Thayer College went through several incarnations and eventually became a high school that closed in the mid-1980s.

It sat vacant for several years until John and Willa Bundy opened the Thayer Learning Center in 2002, aiming to turn around the lives of unruly teenagers with the sort of rigor and discipline associated with boot camps. The community was glad to have the building occupied, and it welcomed the promise of jobs for some of Kidder's roughly 270 residents.

"At the start, everything looked good," said Mayor Melissa Gough, who manages the Kidder Kurve convenience store.

But allegations of child abuse at Thayer - about 50 miles northeast of Kansas City - began to trickle out after 15-year-old Roberto Reyes died in November 2004, less than two weeks after enrolling. The center eventually settled a lawsuit filed by his family for $1 million over allegations that he did not receive treatment soon enough for a spider bite.

A Kansas City Star investigation in 2005 found that at least seven people, some of them former employees, reported more than a dozen allegations of child abuse at Thayer between April 2003 and October 2005. A state investigative report obtained by The Star said that "it appears that those responsible for the safety … of Roberto Reyes failed to recognize his medical distress and to provide access to appropriate medical evaluation and/or treatment."

At least one lawsuit filed by former employees is pending in federal court against Willa Bundy and the Thayer Learning Center. The plaintiffs contend a lawsuit filed against them by Thayer, and eventually dropped, was intended to keep them quiet about how the facility was run.

"We're still pressing forward," said Phil Elberg, the New Jersey attorney representing the former employees.

An attorney for the Bundys did not return a phone call.

Thayer shut down in late summer.

Unlike the private boot camp, the White Buffalo Academy will be a nonprofit operation integrated with the community, said John.

"This is going to be an upbeat program," he said.

The mayor said she had talked to John several times. Somewhat jaded by Thayer - which sometimes denied local law enforcement access to the building and often awoke residents with marching chants - she is optimistic that the new academy will be a better presence.

"There's skepticism, sure, because of the experiences we've had recently," Gough said. "But if they can do what they say they want to do, it sounds great."

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