‘Like a Stephen King novel’: Former students accuse Missouri boarding school of ‘unspeakable’ abuse
In Stockton, Missouri, Agapé Boarding School — a private Baptist/Christian fundamentalist boarding school for troubled teenage boys — has been inundated with lawsuits from former attendees who allege that its conditions are cruel and abusive. Nine more lawsuits against Agapé, in addition to earlier lawsuits, were filed in April, and five of its staffers are facing assault charges in Cedar County, Missouri. Critics of Agapé are trying to get the school shut down.
Attorneys for Agapé have been flatly denying the abuse allegations. Agapé’s website brags that it gives troubled teenage boys a “strong academic foundation” in a caring environment that will “get a teen’s behavior back on track.” But sources interviewed for a report by the Daily Beast’s Kate Briquelet describe the conditions at Agapé as anything but caring.
“Former students interviewed by The Daily Beast say the school was far from heavenly,” Briquelet reports in an article published by the Beast on the Fourth of July 2022. “Instead, they encountered a climate more like ‘Lord of the Flies,’ where staff were given free rein to restrain and beat students, and where some kids were emotionally and sexually abused. They claim Agapé has functioned like a ‘cult’ and ‘Christian torture compound’ for decades, allowing adults to manhandle teenagers and withhold food, water, and proper clothing — apparently without most parents ever knowing.”
Briquelet reports that according to the former attendees it interviewed, Agapé, “banned children from speaking to each other without adults present, censored their letters home, destroyed photographs showing anything other than happy faces, and admonished kids that if they ran away, locals with guns would hunt them down.”
“As part of a ‘buddy’ system,” Briquelet explains, “older students had authority to mete out seemingly arbitrary punishments to new students assigned to them. Now, they’ve joined a chorus of voices —including parents, lawmakers, and even heiress and boarding-school abuse activist Paris Hilton — demanding the state of Missouri shut down Agapé for good.”
\u201cHow much more do you need to see @AGEricSchmitt @GovParsonMO? This needs to end!\u201d— ParisHilton (@ParisHilton) 1655838920
Briquelet notes that since 2021, 19 former students have filed lawsuits against Agapé that allege “physical and emotional abuse, and in some cases, sexual abuse by staff and classmates.” David Smock, Agapé’s former doctor, has pled not guilty to child molestation charges; Smock’s case is separate from the five staffers who are facing assault charges.
One of the former Agapé students interviewed by the Beast, Robert Bucklin, told the publication, “They need to go in there and rescue the boys and worry about the investigation later. These boys are in danger.”
Bucklin has tweeted a late 1990s video that shows then-principal Brother Frank Burton chasing a boy around a volleyball court at Agapé and kicking him from behind. And Bucklin told the Beast, “What the fuck is it going to take? Especially after seeing that video, what else is it going to take? For bodies to stop dropping there?”
\u201cStaff member at Agape Boarding School kicking & dragging a young boy \n\nThis shows clear abuse by the staff at agape\n\n@Paris_Hilton9 @EnglishTeach07 @DerrickNowlinMO @crystal_quade @RepKeriIngle @KWindham85 @ericgarland @FPWellman @JennaForMO @GovParsonMO @LauraAnnSTL @RayReedMO\u201d— robert bucklin\ud83c\uddfa\ud83c\uddf2 (@robert bucklin\ud83c\uddfa\ud83c\uddf2) 1655086092
Bucklin recalled some of the atrocities he observed when he was a student at Apapé.
“I remember this guy in the dorm rolled a fake joint, and these staff members restrained him for hours,” Bucklin told the Beast. “He came back into the dorm, his shirt was torn apart, he had blood everywhere all over him, his face was black and blue. And that happened constantly. I think the longest restraint when I was there was nine hours. They literally had to do a shift change because the staff was getting tired. That guy couldn’t walk for days.”
Rep. Keri Ingle, a Democrat who serves in the Missouri House of Representatives, has speaking out about Agapé and told the Beast, “I can’t empathize with the survivors enough. We’re so close and yet so far from getting justice for them…. It sounds like a Stephen King novel, and it’s not. It’s something that’s been happening to kids in this state and across the country for decades, and they’re using the name of God to justify it.”
Michelle Barnett, whose husband Joe Barnett was a former Agapé student, committed suicide in 2020 at the age of 33 — and she believes that the conditions at Agapé contributed to his depression. Barnett told the Beast, “The things they did to my husband are just unspeakable. Somebody with a known mental illness should never, at the age of 12, be sent to a place where you cannot talk to any of your peers for a year. That alone, besides the beatings they got, being told he just needed to pray harder…. They really messed him up.”
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