Former staffers at Missouri Christian boarding school face civil lawsuit alleging abuse of students

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Yet another civil lawsuit filed Wednesday against a Missouri Christian boarding school by a former student accuses staffers of forced child labor, physical abuse and tactics aimed at hiding mistreatment from authorities.

The lawsuit, filed in Missouri’s Western U.S. District Court, alleges fraud and negligence by five former employees of the now-closed Agape Boarding School.

More than a dozen other former students have settled lawsuits alleging they were abused at the southwest Missouri school.

When it shut down in 2023, it was the fourth and last unlicensed Christian boarding school to close in Cedar County since September 2020. The school’s former director, Bryan Clemensen, said the school, whose enrollment had tumbled, closed because it did not have the funding to continue.

Several people affiliated with those schools are facing criminal charges.

Advocates for victims of abuse at Missouri boarding schools in May and again on Wednesday urged the state’s attorney general to launch an investigation, work with local prosecutors and take other steps aimed at stemming the tide of abuse.

An attorney general spokesperson did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment Wednesday. But previously, Attorney General Andrew Bailey’s spokesperson, Madeline Sieren, has said that the attorney general’s office does not have jurisdiction to prosecute criminal cases, except when appointed as special prosecutor by the governor or a court.

The latest lawsuit claims that Agape “ran a ‘school’ akin to a concentration camp or torture colony cloaked in the guise of religion.”

Lawyers for three of the named defendants did not immediately return AP requests for comment. Attorneys were not immediately listed in online court records for the remaining two defendants.

The former student who is suing is now 20 years old and is identified in court filings only as John Doe.

Punishments given by staffers at Agape included forcing children to work out until they vomited and stay still in painful positions for hours at a time, the lawsuit states.

“There was a restraint room below the cafeteria. Students were often taken there and restrained; they could be heard screaming,” according to the lawsuit. “This went on for hours.”

Doe claims in his lawsuit that the staffers limited students' phone use and their letters to home in an attempt to conceal conditions at the school from their parents and “actively concealed from the Children’s Division abuses that were occurring.”

Doe, who first went to Agape at age 15, said staff also “brainwashed” him and others to make it easier to commit abuse.

The lawsuit claimed workers “prevented the children from receiving letters or care packages sent to them by their parents causing the children to believe they had been abandoned thereby emotionally coercing them into silence in order to conceal their abuses.”

Doe asked the judge for a jury trial and money from the defendants.

Other former Agape students came forward with abuse allegations in 2020. One former student said he was raped at Agape and called “seizure boy” because of his epilepsy. Others said they suffered permanent injuries from being disciplined or forced to work long hours of manual labor.

In 2021, Agape’s longtime doctor, David Smock, was charged with child sex crimes and five employees were charged with low-level abuse counts.