A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court accuses a religious reform school near Poplar Bluff, Mo., of abusing its students with "barbaric means of thought control, humiliation, degradation and punishment."
The suit against Mountain Park Boarding Academy says students are subjected to austere forms of discipline, denied outside communication and limited to two short bathroom breaks and as little as five hours of sleep a day.
The suit was filed last week in Cape Girardeau on behalf of Arkansas resident Jordan Blair, 17, who attended Mountain Park last year and later transferred to Palm Lane Academy, a sister school in Florida. Blair, of Alma, Ark., escaped from the Florida school while on an errand with a school employee.
The suit seeks an unspecified amount of damages. But Blair's attorney, Oscar Stilley of Fort Smith, Ark., said his main goal is to force the two schools to change how they discipline and treat students. The suit asks the court to mandate reforms at the school immediately.
"That is the central issue: to stop this kind of mistreatment," Stilley said Monday. Mountain Park's founder, the Rev. Bob Wills, described the allegations Monday as "ridiculous" and said he trusted the lawsuit would be dismissed. He said the suit is based exclusively on accounts from one student with questionable credibility.
"What would you expect a runaway to say who left the school without permission?" Wills asked.
Mountain Park Boarding Academy is an independent Baptist school enrolling 120 girls and 35 boys near Patterson, Mo., about 110 miles south of St. Louis. The Palm Lane School in Arcadia, Fla., enrolls about 50 students.
The schools rely on Christian fundamentalist teachings, strict discipline and corporal punishment to work with teenagers with behavioral problems. Parents pay $14,000 in annual tuition and must commit their children for at least a year. Visits with family members are limited.
Mountain Park has long attracted critics, particularly after a Florida teen was killed there by two other students in 1996.
The lawsuit filed last week claims employees at the Mountain Park and Palm Lane schools:
Stilley said Blair was placed at the school by his parents, who wanted an alternative to state juvenile facilities. Stilley said Blair got in trouble after threatening his younger brother, but the attorney is challenging rulings by the juvenile court.
Stilley said his client returned to Arkansas after escaping the Florida school, but Stilley would not provide an exact location.
Wills said he is certain his schools will be vindicated when details about the boy's history are known. Lawyers representing the schools could not be reached for comment Monday.
Wills previously ran a school in Hattiesburg, Miss., which 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 shut it and relocated to Missouri in 1987.
Missouri law exempts religious boarding schools like Mountain Park from state regulation and oversight.