New judge allows Stockton, Missouri boarding school to stay open for now

STOCKTON, Mo. (AP) – A judge in Cedar County, Mo., on Tuesday allowed a Christian boarding school to remain open for the time being, scheduling two days of hearings in October to determine its fate after several current students and elders have alleged widespread abuse.

The decision by Cedar County Associate Circuit Judge Thomas Pyle came a day after he took over the case involving Agape Boarding School in Stockton. The Missouri attorney general’s office had asked Pyle to close the school after asking for the new judge for the case previously presided over by Cedar County Circuit Judge David Munton. The state did not specify why it was seeking a new judge.

Pyle also approved the state’s request to relocate Missouri Department of Social Services workers to Agape. On Monday, Munton lifted the order allowing state workers into the school. They had been there to monitor abuse since September 8.

Two days of hearings to determine Agape’s fate are scheduled for October 13 and 14.

Agape’s lawyer, John Schultz, said he was satisfied with the judge’s decision allowing Agape to continue operating.

“Agape students face no immediate harm as the state has argued,” Schultz said in a statement. “We are monitoring students 24/7 and will continue to do so with the return of DSS workers. We look forward to having a trial in this case starting October 13, where real evidence, as opposed to unsubstantiated allegations, can be heard and considered.

A spokesman for Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt declined to comment.

Schmitt’s office filed a petition earlier this month to close the school, calling it an “immediate concern for the health and safety of children residing in Agape.” The school once served over 100 boys. The current figure is unclear. School officials declined to respond to interview requests.

Last week, Republican Speaker of the Missouri House, Rob Vescovo, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Teresa Moore in Kansas City also asking for Agape to be shut down. His letter said the situation is “deeper and contains deeper rooted corruption than we are able to address at the state level alone.”

Vescovo’s letter did not explain his corruption allegations, and he declined interview requests.

The Agape website calls it a boarding school “for teenagers who exhibit bad behavior or fail in school. Our mission is to straighten out your troubled teenager. Its parent manual says it is a ministry of Agape Baptist Church, also in Stockton. The school opened in 1996.

Allegations of abuse at Agape and a nearby Christian girls’ boarding school, Circle of Hope, resulted in a new Missouri law last year that, among other things, set minimum health and safety requirements for boarding schools, required background checks on employees and demanded adequate food, clothing and medical care for students.

Last year, longtime Agape doctor David Smock was charged with child sex crimes and five employees were charged with minor abuse. Schmitt’s office argued that 22 workers should have been charged, and with more serious crimes. But in Missouri, only the local prosecutor can file charges, and Cedar County District Attorney Ty Gaither said no additional employees will be charged.

Circle of Hope, in Humansville, Missouri, closed amid a 2020 investigation and its husband and wife co-founders face 99 charges, including child abuse and neglect and sex crimes.

The petition filed by Schmitt’s office cites several allegations of abuse at Agape, including many current students, as told by DSS workers on site.

A student was slammed through a magnetically locked door and then restrained for about 40 minutes, several current students said.

In another case, a student said he saw another student punched in the stomach by a staff member while other staff restrained the student, who was then allegedly handcuffed for about two weeks, except for the toilet visits. The punishment was due to the student refusing to do jumping jacks, according to the court filing.

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