Missouri judge once again delays decision on closing Agape Boarding School

The reform school accused of physical and sexual abuse by a litany of former students is hoping for a jury trial as the state continues pushing for it to be shuttered

By: - September 21, 2022 4:05 pm

The state submitted an amended petition Sept. 9 alleging a broader range of abuse, forming “the dark pattern of behavior at Agapé,” including allegations of child abuse and neglect which the state argued pose an “immediate health or safety concern” to students (Getty Images).

A Cedar County judge on Wednesday again delayed ruling on the state’s efforts to close Agape Boarding School, the Stockton-based reform school facing mounting abuse allegations — allowing the school to stay open until at least the next hearing, which is scheduled for Monday.

In the meantime, two state Children’s Division staff will continue to have 24/7 access to the school to monitor the children. 

Judge David Munton initially ordered earlier this month that the school be shut down, in a response to the state’s petition for injunction. But soon after, he put the decision on hold because the staff member accused of abuse in the state’s petition was no longer employed at the school. 

The state submitted an amended petition Sept. 9 alleging a broader range of abuse, forming “the dark pattern of behavior at Agapé,” including allegations of child abuse and neglect which the state argued pose an “immediate health or safety concern” to students. 

Because of various procedural objections by Agape’s attorney, the judge has yet to hear arguments on the state’s amended petition. Last week, Munton sided with Agape’s attorneys when they argued they had not had enough time to respond to this amended complaint. This week, the judge granted Agape a few days to appeal one of his decisions.

However, Munton did deny Agape’s motion to dismiss the complaint, allowing the process to move forward. He also denied Agape’s request for a jury trial. 

Agape’s attorney, John Schultz, said he expects to learn by Friday whether the appellate courts will hear arguments to overturn Munton’s decision to deny a jury trial. 

Jury trials are not standard in injunction cases, but Schultz argues this one — which seeks to close down the school and put a “30 year business out of operation” — is an exceptional case worthy of the right to trial by a “jury of our peers.”

Former Agape student Robert Bucklin said Tuesday he felt Agape’s lawyers were simply trying to “drag out” the case. 

“He’s trying to delay the inevitable,” Bucklin said of Schultz. “They’re playing games with the safety of children.”

The push to shut down Agape is being led by the state Department of Social Services and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt. 

In a statement Wednesday, Schmitt’s spokesman said his office “yet again had witnesses, including victims of alleged abuse at Agape, ready to testify and the office was prepared to present evidence, but unfortunately the office was unable to do so.”

Unless a higher court agrees to hear Agape’s appeal, Munton will hold a hearing on Agape’s fate on Monday. 

The state submitted another amended petition Monday, which the judge decided he will not allow to be heard, due to fairness and due process concerns related to the timing. That petition points to new allegations from “numerous current Agape students” regarding “physical abuse” by current Agape employees. (Agape denies the allegations.)

Two Children’s Division workers have had 24-hour access to the facility since Sept. 8. While there, students have approached them, “often surreptitiously” out of fear of retaliation, to report physical abuse they experienced, according to the filing, the petition states. One student “hid his notes in his shoe” prior to his meeting with the state worker, in case he were searched beforehand. 

The current students’ reports ranged from experiencing “severe bruising” after being restrained, being slammed into the ground, pushed into walls, forced to do hundreds of pushups as punishment, and being kept in handcuffs for days at a time, including while sleeping. One student was punished by having food withheld, which was “documented as malnourishment,” the amended petition states. 

Although those allegations will not be considered in the next hearing, the attorney general’s office said with the witnesses and evidence they have in regard to the first amended complaint, “We look forward to presenting that evidence on Monday morning and obtaining justice in this case” and said the Children’s Division staff will continue 24/7 on-site monitoring.

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Clara Bates
Clara Bates

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty. She previously wrote for the Nevada Current, where she reported on labor violations in casinos, hurdles facing applicants for unemployment benefits and lax oversight of the funeral industry. She also wrote about vocational education for Democracy Journal. Bates is a graduate of Harvard College and a member of the Report for America Corps.