KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nine new lawsuits have been filed alleging abuse at a southwest Missouri boarding school where five staffers are facing criminal charges for assaulting students.
The civil suits were filed by former students from California to Massachusetts who attended Agape Boarding School in Stockton from March 2015 through June 2019. They accuse Agape Boarding School and Agape Baptist Church, which oversees the school, of negligence, infliction of emotional distress and battery by staff and fellow students. Some of the abuse, the suits allege, involved torture and starvation.
"For nearly three decades, students at Agape Boarding School have experienced emotional, mental, physical and sexual abuse," said Ryan Frazier, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, in a statement to The Star on Friday. "Today, we filed petitions in Cedar County for nine of those victims, to pursue justice for the trauma they endured and to have their voices heard."
The plaintiffs, who are from eight states, are requesting jury trials and seeking unspecified amounts in damages.
The lawsuits add to a growing list of civil cases filed in the past 18 months against Agape and the now-closed Circle of Hope Girls Ranch, another unlicensed Cedar County boarding school. Fourteen former students have now sued Agape since February 2021, and five lawsuits filed against Circle of Hope from September 2020 to March 2021 were settled last year for an undisclosed amount. Two new Circle of Hope lawsuits have been filed in recent weeks.
Agape officials have not responded to repeated requests from The Star for comment on any of the stories it has published about the school.
The new lawsuits also allege that Agape violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, committing fraud and deception by misrepresenting or concealing information given to the students and their families. Among the examples cited:
— Parents were told that Agape does not participate in any form of corporal punishment, chokeholds or physical restraints — other than briefly in situations in which the student may be an imminent threat to himself or others.
But the lawsuits say students "were subject to extreme punishment and torture, which consisted of severe physical and emotional abuse lasting longer than a few minutes without any regard to whether the child was an imminent threat to himself or others."
— Agape said it provided excellent meals and did not withhold food, when in reality, students would be subjected to severe restrictions. Students who were sent to "brown town," the lawsuits say, "were constantly starved and fed only a piece of bread with a single scoop of peanut butter or a tortilla with a scoop of cold refried beans."
— School officials told parents that they would provide proper medical care and treatment, yet most students "were denied medical treatment, despite requests, and/or immediately taken off prescription medications and told that 'God would fix them,'" according to the lawsuits.
— Agape said it provided quality education with fully accredited academics and a focus on each student achieving academic success. But the suits say students were forced to teach themselves and found that their education was not accredited for the colleges they wanted to attend.
The lawsuits also allege that for many years prior to the plaintiffs' arrival at Agape, there had been multiple incidents of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of students by staff members. Some of those acts resulted in criminal sexual abuse charges and convictions, the lawsuits say.
"Despite this knowledge, Defendant Agape failed to implement safety measures designed to protect its residents from such abuses," the suits allege.
When the plaintiffs arrived at the school, the lawsuits say, "a culture of pervasive physical, emotional, and sexual abuse existed at Agape Boarding School that was not disclosed" to parents or guardians.
The lawsuits also note that a previous Agape student had been the victim of repeated sexual assaults that led to another student — who then became a staff member — being convicted of multiple charges of felony child molestation. Agape leaders knew about the sexual abuse, but "failed to adequately investigate or report it or take steps to protect the plaintiffs from further incidents," the suits allege.
"Instead of prevention, Defendant Agape practiced a pattern of punishment designed to conceal and prevent the reporting of such incidents to the appropriate authorities and to prevent knowledge of such incidents being known by the public," the lawsuits say.
Agape's negligence, each lawsuit says, "directly caused, or directly contributed to cause, Plaintiff to suffer serious, permanent, and progressive injuries, medically diagnosable and significant emotional distress, mental anguish and injury, and damages for which he has and will continue to need medical and psychiatric care and treatment."
The nine plaintiffs filing lawsuits are identified in court documents only by their initials. They are from Texas, Oklahoma, Maryland, Indiana, Massachusetts, California, New York and two are from Tennessee.
Eight of the plaintiffs allege that they were physically and emotionally abused "by multiple agents, servants, and employees of Defendant Agape." C.K., from Maryland, alleges that he was "physically, sexually, and emotionally harassed and abused" by staff and other students. All lawsuits say that no hotline calls were made to report the abuse.
Agape is among the numerous facilities The Star has examined in an ongoing investigation into Missouri's faith-based reform schools, which are exempt from state oversight. The school moved to the Show-Me State in 1996 after coming under scrutiny in Washington and California.
Reporters have interviewed more than 60 former Agape students, their time at the school spanning nearly a quarter of a century. The men shared emotional stories of beatings, sexual abuse, physical restraints, long days of manual labor, and food and water withheld as punishment. Some said they reported the abuse but nothing happened.
Prompted by the stories of abuse at several boarding schools, the General Assembly passed a measure last year that for the first time gives the state oversight over these facilities. Authorities also launched an investigation into abuse allegations at Agape, and in September, five staffers were charged with assaulting students. The Star reported last month that three of those staff members are still working at the school.
Two other lawsuits alleging abuse at boarding schools have been filed this year.
On March 1, the Circle of Hope owners' estranged daughter, Amanda Householder, sued her parents, Boyd and Stephanie Householder, alleging forced labor, beating her for their own sexual gratification and making her punish other students when she was a teenager at their boarding school. Amanda Householder also named as defendants Agape Boarding School and its owner, the late James Clemensen; Agape Baptist Church; and Jeffrey Ables, a former Circle of Hope board member and current pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Springfield.
And on Feb. 28, a former student filed a lawsuit against Circle of Hope and the Householders. The plaintiff, identified as "M.J." from Louisiana, attended the school from 2017 to 2019, starting when she was 15, the lawsuit said.
While there, it alleged, she was "physically, emotionally and mentally abused and assaulted."
The Householders ran Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in Cedar County from 2006 until closing it in September 2020 amid allegations of abuse and an ongoing investigation by local and state officials. Last year, the couple was charged with 100 criminal counts including statutory rape, sodomy, physical abuse and neglect. All but one are felonies.