‘Emotional roller coaster’: Delays in effort to shut down Agape dishearten former students
Over three months after the state moved to shut down Agape Boarding School, it remains open — to the frustration of some former students who have been pushing for its closure for years
Allen Knoll, who was sent to Agape Boarding School in Missouri, testified during a committee hearing on Feb. 10, 2021, about abuse he says he endured there. (Photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications)
When he read the news back in September that Missouri had moved to shut down Agape Boarding School, Allen Knoll felt a sense of vindication.
”For me personally,” he said, “but also for current victims.”
It was over a year and a half after Knoll had traveled to Missouri from Washington state to testify in front of the legislature about his time as a student at the Stockton-based Christian boarding school, detailing the abuse he says he suffered at the school and urging lawmakers to pass legislation to regulate faith-based unlicensed boarding schools.
It was also over a year after the legislation he pushed for had gone into effect.
The state filed for an injunction to close the school — a measure activists like Knoll, who co-founded a nonprofit advocating for reform to the so-called troubled teen industry, had been publicly demanding for months. And a judge seemed ready to close the school for good.
“I felt like, cool, those kids are going to be somewhere safe,” Knoll said of the students then at the school.
But his vindication quickly turned to resignation.
The judge initially signaled the school could shut down immediately, then delayed any decision over a weekend. More delays followed, and three months later, the school remains open, pending a still-unscheduled trial set to take place sometime next year.
“I was happy and then heartbroken,” Knoll said in an interview last week. “I feel like I didn’t do my job good enough, maybe there’s something I can do.”
The delays are just the latest frustration for former students who have publicly accused the school of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
Criminal charges against school leaders fell short of what the state attorney general recommended, and a push by the state to put the school’s director on a child abuse registry — and thus ban him from working at the school — was upended, for the time being, by a Cole County judge last week.
The school, which has been subject to intense social media pressure from activists and at least 20 lawsuits, remains open and has vehemently denied allegations of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, efforts to shut Agape down continue to drag on as Attorney General Eric Schmitt, whose office is leading the charge to shutter the school, is set to step down in January to join the U.S. Senate.
“Everyone’s flabbergasted by it,” James Griffey, who attended Agape as a student from 1998 to 2001 and left in 2002 after working on staff, said of the developments that have allowed the school to stay open.
“What kind of evidence do they need?”
‘Immediate health and safety concern’
In more than 20 lawsuits against the school, former students detail a range of allegation, from having food withheld as punishment to being forced to submit to physical labor and extreme exercise to being taken off prescribed medications.
An investigation by The Kansas City Star beginning in 2020 included interviews from dozens of former students spanning decades who made similar abuse allegations. Agape denies any wrongdoing.
Missouri’s attorney general, along with the state Department of Social Services, filed for an injunction on Sept. 7 seeking to close Agape, alleging an “immediate health and safety concern” to the children there.
The state’s push to close Agape relies on a law passed in 2021, which granted the attorney general’s office and Department of Social Services, as well as county prosecuting or circuit attorneys, the authority to seek injunctive relief to cease the operation of a residential care facility, and provide for appropriate removal of children in certain instances. The law also required residential facilities to conduct background checks on staff, which the state alleges Agape has violated.
After being tied up in court over several procedural matters, Agape Boarding School remains open despite the state’s findings that staff perpetrated child abuse and neglect.
There is no definite end in sight in the case.
Agape’s attorney told The Independent he expects the trial to occur early next year.
The social services department was allowed 24/7 emergency access to Agape beginning in September, when the case was originally delayed for a weekend, in order to monitor children’s safety. Over three months later, the social services department is still operating under court-approved access to the facility to monitor it.
“Agape remains open and the boys residing there are being safely cared for and educated,” John Schultz, Agape’s attorney in this case, said in an interview.
There are around 25 students there now, down from 121 early last year.
The state has argued that if not for the presence of social service workers there would be “real, immediate concerns that children at Agapé may be subject to current and future incidents of child abuse or neglect, and their health and safety cannot be assured.”
The judge in the case, Thomas Pyle in Cedar County, is set to retire December 31 and a new judge will be assigned, the Cedar County circuit clerk confirmed Tuesday by email.
Chris Nuelle, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said, by email to The Independent last week: “We have fought hard to protect the students at Agape and litigate this case as aggressively as possible, and the office will continue to do so.”
One hurdle to trial cleared
A series of procedural delays hampered the state’s effort to close Agape. But the most significant hold up since September came awaiting a decision from the court of appeals that arrived earlier this month and possibly cleared the path forward for trial to occur more quickly in the new year.
Agape’s attorneys in early October sought to require the state to appoint court-appointed representatives, called guardian ad litems, for each child currently at Agape and to add all of their parents as parties in the case.
Pyle granted the request, which in turn inspired a push by Agape to move any potential trial date back.
Schultz said he asked for an extended trial date because appointing “28 guardian ad litems and bringing in 56 parents getting all their schedules, it’d be kind of difficult.”
The state argued that the case’s focus was to “cease business operations and return the children to their parents or legal guardians,” not a child custody case where a guardian ad litem would be required.
The Missouri Southern District Court of Appeals sided with the state, successfully vacating the judge’s order. But that took two months to decide.
Without the need for parents to become involved or guardian ad litems to appoint, Schultz said, “we can do it in pretty quick order, so whenever the judge can schedule, we’ll be ready.”
‘Emotional roller coaster’
Griffey pointed to a Cole County judge’s decision last week not to place Agape’s longtime director, Bryan Clemensen, on the state child abuse registry as just the latest twist in an “emotional roller coaster.”
The state said it substantiated five preponderance of evidence findings against Clemensen — one count of child neglect and four of physical abuse. The judge said Clemensen should remain off the registry until a final judgment is issued in a full trial, or until further order from the court.
“I don’t know what they would think is abuse,” said Griffey, who alleges among the abuse he suffered was being punched in the face by a staff member the first night he was at Agape for saying the word “gosh.”
Last year, Cedar County prosecuting attorney Ty Gaither filed only a fraction of the criminal counts against Agape that Schmitt recommended after his office conducted an investigation.
The state blamed the local prosecutor’s office, saying they’d been “stymied” by “an uncooperative prosecutor at nearly every turn.” The Star has investigated ties between Agape and Cedar County law enforcement, including sheriff’s deputies who worked at Agape.
Gaither said recently that he filed so few counts because he does not believe the restraint and pain compliance techniques Agape staff allegedly performed qualify as abuse under Missouri law.
“We’ve laid down all the evidence, countless stories, countless testimonies,” said Colton Schrag, an Agape student from 2003 to 2004 and 2006 to 2010. “Staff members were found to have substantiated claims of abuse against them, and they’re still managing to operate.”
At Agape, where Knoll began as a student at age 13, in 1999 and left in 2001, he alleges he was routinely subject to physical abuse, including being pinned down by several staff members daily for hours at a time as a form of “compliance through pain.”
He alleges three or four staff members would hold down his arms, legs, and put a knee on his back, sometimes twisting his arms and pushing on the pressure point behind his neck he said, daily for over two months as a form of punishment when he refused to comply with directions, such as refusing to go to church.
Knoll said the activism of former students online has created its own kind of victory, although the “elation” among survivors they felt when they got the new regulations on boarding schools passed in 2021 has given way to frustration and a sense of “deflation.”
As Clemensen explained in testimony earlier this month, Agape is struggling financially, forced to transition to a group-home setup amid dwindling numbers of students.
“It’s a victory that’s to no credit to the politicians, it’s a victory to the survivors that have gone out there and gotten their stories told,” Knoll said. “These politicians aren’t responsible for the 90% decrease in enrollment. It was the survivors that went out there and were bold enough to tell their stories.”
Nonetheless, Knoll said, he still wants the state to remove the remaining children.
“They got the kids that are still there. They were like me, I was the throwaway child. Who’s gonna leave their kid at Agape after all these allegations?” Knoll said. “These are people that have abandoned their children. I was one of those kids.”
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