"most controversial teen reform ministries in Missouri has closed"
Boney ashes eventually turn to dust . Posted May 29, 2004 6:07 AM
Beleaguered teen reform school shuts down
By Matt Franck
Post-Dispatch Jefferson City Bureau
Several former students alleged mistreatment at Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy, which was facing falling enrollment, legal problems and growing competition.
One of the oldest and perhaps most controversial teen reform ministries in Missouri has closed, following declining enrollment, decades of legal hassles and new competition.
Friday was the last day on the job for employees at Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy, near Patterson, Mo., about 120 miles south of St. Louis. Students have already returned home or been transferred to similar reform schools, according to reports.
Officials from Mountain Park did not return phone calls Friday. This week, the school's principal, Sam Gerhardt, told a local newspaper that the decision follows a difficult period for the reform school.
"It is just time," Gerhardt told the Wayne County Journal Banner. "We've been in some battles for the last couple of years. It is just time for us to do something different."
The ministry is one of several in the state that seeks to turn around troubled youths with a regimen of strict discipline, Bible teachings and corporal punishment. Many parents credit Mountain Park with rescuing their teens, and on Friday some expressed disappointment about the announcement.
"I'm sad that they closed," said Jodi Hoffman, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., parent who had two children at Mountain Park and a sister school in Florida. "I think that they helped many children and would have continued helping children."
Several former students have said they were mistreated at the school.
Last month, a jury awarded a former student $20,000 for allegedly being pushed at the school by an employee. At least two other lawsuits are pending, including one that was filed on behalf of both students and parents.
On Friday, some alumni said they have wished for the school to close for years.
"This is the result we've been waiting for, so I'm very happy about it," said Angela Collier, who attended from 1992 to 1994 and now lives in Oklahoma City.
Collier operates an Internet site that she has used to publicize the school's troubled history. Mountain Park also has been the center of news media attention over the years, including from the Post-Dispatch, which printed a report two years ago based on the accounts of several dozen former students.
But scrutiny of the ministry dates back nearly three decades, long before Mountain Park opened in Missouri in 1987. The school's founders, Bobby and Betty Wills, had previously operated teen reform schools near Hattiesburg, Miss., before they were shut down after years of abuse investigations and a court order to remove all students.
The ministry first came to the attention of many state officials in Missouri when a student at Mountain Park was killed by three others in 1996.
But the school had often thrived since then, typically enrolling more than 150 teens from all over the country. Parents paid roughly $1,200 a month, usually enrolling their children for a minimum of a year.
That enrollment had dropped to about 40 students this year, according to school officials who testified in the school's court case last month.
John Oliver, a lawyer who represents Mountain Park, said this month that the ministry was rethinking its future, in part, because of competition from several teen reform programs in the state. Several reform schools have moved to Missouri because it does not require religious residential treatment centers to obtain a state license.
But former students such as Collier say they think negative publicity on the Internet ultimately may have doomed the ministry.
Collier's Internet site, and a few others, allow former students to recount their experiences at the school. A few have used the message boards to praise the ministry, but Collier estimates that more than 50 former students have shared accounts of mistreatment.
"I think that made a huge difference, because we never had students coming together before," she said.
Mountain Park shut down its own Web site in recent months. Parents interested in the school since then have sometimes come across Collier's site instead, she said.
During the trial, Betty Wills said the ministry wasn't getting as many calls as it used to for new students.
Mountain Park's sister school, Palm Lane Academy in Florida, also is closing. According to the Wayne County Journal Banner, Mountain Park has referred families to similar teen ministries.
One such school, Thanks to Calvary Boarding School, near Waynesville, Mo., is operated by Nathan Day, a former Mountain Park employee. Day said Friday that he would not comment on whether his school has accepted students from Mountain Park.
Mountain Park's legal battles, meanwhile, will apparently outlast the school.
Arkansas lawyer Oscar Stilley, who won the $20,000 settlement against the ministry last month, said he is pushing ahead with at least two other lawsuits.
"I intend to pursue them to the ends of the earth," he said.
Reporter Matt Franck