Heartland Academy is winning its battle in the courts

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/December 3, 2002
By Matthew Franck

Bethel, Mo -- Child protection officials have raided his Heartland Christian Academy. Prosecutors have thrown the book at his employees. But Charles N. Sharpe isn't budging.

Not from his plan to enroll hundreds more troubled youths at a 20,000-acre religious complex he built with his own wealth. And not from his belief that America's youths are falling prey to drugs, sex and violence because public institutions are godless and parents have spared the rod of discipline.

As long as society fails its youth and helpless parents bring their children to his doorstep, Sharpe said, his ministry will flourish.

There's no sugarcoating how he regards those who attack the biblical refuge he has spent six years building.

"They are evil," he said. "There's not another term for it. They hate us. They literally hate us."

In the past two years, Sharpe said, he has spent more than $2 million defending Heartland employees against a long list of criminal charges, ranging from forcing kids to work in deep piles of manure to excessively paddling students. Several of his employees have been hauled into court, and investigators temporarily removed Heartland's 115 students last fall.

Today, Sharpe appears to have the upper hand.

His attorneys have persuaded a federal judge to ban all future raids but allow the state to continue investigating individual reports of abuse. The judge even said he was disgusted by how the raid played out. More recently, a rural jury needed only 18 minutes this spring to determine that working waist-deep in manure isn't child abuse. Other abuse cases appear to have stalled.

If anything, Sharpe said, all the hassles have brought more teens in. Many parents are so in need of help, he said, that they are relieved to learn about Heartland, even if through bad publicity.

Today, Heartland runs on Charles Sharpe's terms. And Sharpe runs much more than a school and a church.

He acts as a sort of mayor of a city that cropped up in a cornfield - one with a subdivision of brick duplexes, a hotel, two restaurants, a gas station, a private runway, 3,200 milk cows and one of the largest cattle operations in the state.

All of it was built by money Sharpe made as founder of Ozark National Life Insurance Co. And all of it was built on the belief that drug addicts and former criminals needed a place to escape from the sins of the world.

Since 1995, Heartland has welcomed not only defiant teens, but adults and even entire families who come to work the ranch and farmland while they shed bad habits.

Many cross the country based on what they have heard from a pastor. Day after day they arrive at Sharpe's office to learn the terms of their stay.

Levi Craig came on a morning in August with his parents. As the 21-year-old recounted a string of drug binges, his mother wept for the times she locked him out of the house or refused to give him money.

Then Sharpe set the conditions of his recovery program. All drugs, even tobacco, are to be abandoned cold-turkey. "It's like you died and just started over," Sharpe said.

To enter Heartland, he said, is to commit to at least two years in the program.

"What if I break down and go crazy six months from now and have to leave?" Craig asked.

"Then you leave now," Sharpe said.

With that, Craig yielded up a cup of tobacco spit and surrendered himself to Sharpe's world.

It's a world that Sharpe willingly opens to visitors. One of his employees does little else than provide tours to visiting pastors, families and members of the media.

Sharpe makes no effort to put a soft face on his rigid teen program. He openly admits that he relies on corporal punishment. But Sharpe said he wants to show outsiders the teens he believes have been reclaimed by the ministry. He recently allowed two journalists from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to observe the teen program with no restrictions on who could be interviewed.

Many students - even when speaking in private - offered unabashed praise.

Leigha, a 16-year-old who did not offer a last name, hugged Sharpe when she saw him in the school hallway. She said she's been to numerous programs to treat her uncontrollably violent temper. At Heartland, she said, "I have people here that care about me."

Joshua Melton, 18, resisted Heartland's approach when his uncle, a Heartland attorney, suggested he enroll. Today, he works with other young men on the cattle ranch and feels his life is in order.

"Milking cows and praising God," he said. "It's awesome."

But a visit to Heartland also leaves little doubt to its severity.

During lunch, several boys in the cafeteria said they knew of only one boy who had not been swatted for acting out. One boy said he had been swatted every day for weeks and expected to be swatted daily for the year or more he anticipates remaining at the school. The boy didn't offer his name, but several of his classmates backed up his claim.

Throughout the day, there are frequent signs that Heartland is ruled by the swat. Students can be seen re-enacting their last paddling and trading advice on how to flex the right muscles to brace for the next hit. In an office, several employees worked through the scheduling conflicts of doling out numerous swats to a boy in several sessions.

Those kinds of tactics haven't entirely gone unpunished. In December, the father of a 17-year-old student pleaded guilty of child abuse for taking part in spanking the boy more than 30 times.

But for the most part, accusations against Heartland and its employees have been batted down by Sharpe's legal team.

Sharpe also appears to have all the support he needs in Jefferson City, where the Legislature has repeatedly defeated efforts to require Heartland and other faith-based programs to submit to regulation. Sharpe has flown several lawmakers on his private jet to tour Heartland, and he ranks as a leading contributor to the Republican Party.

The Missouri Citizen Education Fund, a nonprofit group that tracks conservative political activity, estimates that Sharpe and his family and business associates donated more than $210,000 in the 2000 election cycle. Since state contribution limits have taken effect, Sharpe and associates have donated $12,500 to Republican candidates, including $8,000 to Jim Talent's Senate campaign.

Campaign finance records also indicate that Sharpe and family members donated at least $1,200 to the state House campaign of Brian Munzlinger, a Republican who recently won the district that includes parts of Heartland.

Sharpe still believes he's under assault from those who would take Heartland away from him.

But he knows that he has only begun to tap into what seems like a limitless reserve of troubled teens and frustrated parents. So when he walks through the halls of his pristine school - which enrolls 150 teens from his reform program - he sees room to grow.

"We're looking at having 500 students in the next two years," he said.

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