Students at the New Bethany school spend much of their time praying and memorizing Scripture. Their monthly contact with the outside world is a single, monitored five-minute call to their parents, say former students. They tell of being struck with wooden paddles if they swear or talk about running away.
Even so, youths sometimes flee four miles through pine forests and brambles to the local sheriff's department, where deputies let them call their parents and plead to come home. Some escapees allege abuse or neglect by their keepers or beatings by fellow students in the name of God.
But the Rev. Mack Ford, a former missionary who founded New Bethany in 1971, has repeatedly tried to keep child abuse investigators and fire inspectors away, saying state officials oppose the school's fundamentalist religious approach and want to shut it down.
Now Ford is trying to further insulate the school by seeking a federal court order that would make it more difficult for state social workers to make unannounced school visits. Ford also is seeking at least $250,000 in damages.
A judge threw out his federal civil rights lawsuit in December, but Ford filed an appeal expected to be heard this summer by 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
"State bureaucrats are poking their noses into matters which they have no business asking questions about," said Ford's lawyer, John Hodge. "The teachings of New Bethany may be unorthodox to many, but we contend that New Bethany has a right to hold and to teach these matters."
Lawyers for the state worry that Ford might win an injunction prohibiting visits by social workers and interviews with students about child abuse complaints.
"We're not harassing them," says Henry Bernstein, an assistant attorney general. "We're just doing what we're supposed to do."
Ford didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview and a tour of the school in rural Bienville Parish.
But in a legal dispute with state officials two decades ago over licensing, Ford complained that regulators wanted to put the state above God: "Their philosophy and the Bible philosophy won't meet."
A 1996 raid at the school is at the heart of Ford's current complaint. State workers say they went to the school as part of a child abuse investigation, but Hodge contends they really wanted to question youths about the school's religious teachings and practices.
The lawyer says one social worker said she considered it a form of abuse for Ford to stand in the church pulpit and warn students they would go to hell unless they developed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
"Rev. Ford has a right to present that view without being monitored by the state," Hodge said.
But state officials say in court documents that school employees have administered "severe whippings." They allege one boy was paddled so severely that his buttocks bled.
When a state social services supervisor, Janet Denise Fair, visited the school in 1996, male students hid in nearby woods and female students refused to speak with her. Ford refused to say whether students Fair sought to interview were still at the school and would not provide the names of their parents, she said.
At one point, Fair says, she opened a closet and found an unattended baby. She was told it was the child of people visiting the school.
Kimberly Birch, who was at New Bethany from 1994 to 1996 and is now a 20-year-old nursing student at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, said in an interview that she was among students encouraged to beat other young women who disobeyed rules.
"When one girl said she didn't believe in God, we smashed her face into a wall," Birch said.
One teen who tried to escape was forced to wear a dog collar and was led on a leash by another student, Birch said. She also read students' outgoing mail, discarding pages that complained of mistreatment.
"There were just a lot of girls that we did things to that were wrong," Birch said.
New Bethany was billed as a way of redirecting teens whose parents believed they were veering toward drugs or other trouble, and for years Ford promoted the school at churches around the country, traveling with a choir of female students.
"We would bring people to tears," says Becky Wisdom, 24, of Denton, Texas. "He'd tell about how all these girls were desolate and out on the street until they came to New Bethany and turned their lives around, then we'd sing our little hearts out."
Wisdom, who attended the school in 1991, said she escaped once and made her way to the sheriff's offices in Arcadia. Deputies let her call her father, but he refused to let her come home.
Returned to New Bethany, she had to eat alone and wear "the highest heels possible."
Hodge says many complaints from former students are not credible because they come from rebellious teens angry at being sent to New Bethany.
The attorney says parents agree to keep their children in New Bethany for one year, know the school uses corporal punishment and sign legal papers transferring power of attorney over the students to Ford.
The school has operated so long that neighbors simply accept it as a mysterious part of the landscape, off-limits to outsiders.
As cars drive along the state highway next to the compound, youths in bright red and blue uniforms stare sullenly at motorists.
They're trained to do that, said Chief Deputy Lucky Raley of the Bienville Parish sheriff's office.
Local officials worry about what could happen if they ever had to respond to an emergency at the compound. Ford has refused to provide a map of the school buildings and grounds and student identities, Raley says, adding, "He says the Lord will take care of them."
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