POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- A federal lawsuit on an Arkansas teen-ager's behalf asks a judge to mandate reforms at religious reform schools in Missouri and in Florida at Arcadia, calling their disciplining practices abusive.
Missouri's Mountain Park Boarding Academy, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Cape Girardeau, has subjected students to austere forms of discipline, denied outside communication, limited bathroom breaks and allowed students to sleep as little as five hours a day.
The suit is on behalf of 17-year-old Jordan Blair, who attended Mountain Park last year and later transferred to the sister Palm Lane Academy in Florida. Blair, of Alma, Ark., bolted from the Florida school while on an errand with a school worker.
Mountain Park is an independent Baptist school enrolling 120 girls and 35 boys near Patterson, Mo., about 110 miles south of St. Louis. Palm Lane, in Arcadia, enrolls about 50 students.
Both schools rely on Christian fundamentalist teachings, strict discipline and corporal punishment to work with teen-agers with behavioral problems. Parents pay $14,000 in annual tuition and must commit their children for at least a year. Visits with family members are limited.
Mountain Park's Web site describes the Missouri academy as a "very strict, no nonsense, 'Yes, Sir, Yes, Ma'am,' type of boarding school." Though the suit filed last month does not specify damages sought, it asks a judge to mandate reforms at the schools immediately.
"That is the central issue: to stop this kind of mistreatment," Blair's attorney, Oscar Stilley of Fort Smith, Ark., said Monday.
Mountain Park's founder, the Rev. Bob Wills, called the lawsuit's allegations "ridiculous" and said he believes a judge will dismiss the matter, which Wills said is based exclusively on accounts from one student with questionable credibility.
"What would you expect a runaway to say who left the school without permission?" Wills asked.
Mountain Park has long attracted critics, particularly after a Florida teen was killed there by two other students in 1996.
The lawsuit accuses Mountain Park and Palm Lane employees of:
Limiting boys to two 45-second bathroom breaks a day, during which they are observed by other students and ridiculed if unable to urinate within the time requirement. The schools also allegedly punish students who can't get by on two daily bathroom trips by stripping them naked and scrubbing them with a wire brush if they soil their clothes.
Threatening to send "bounty hunters" to track down students who escape and telling students that armed men guard the school.
Depriving students of sleep, often keeping them up until midnight and waking them by 5:30 a.m.
Encouraging students to beat and ridicule misbehaving students.
Limiting outside communication and refusing to let Blair contact an attorney.
Stilley said Blair was placed at the school by his parents, who wanted an alternative to state juvenile facilities. Stilley said Blair got in trouble after threatening his younger brother, but the attorney is challenging rulings by the juvenile court.
Stilley said his client returned to Arkansas after escaping the Florida school. Stilley would not specify Blair's whereabouts.
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Wills previously ran a Hattiesburg, Miss., school that was sued in 1982 for allegedly paddling pregnant teens and detaining a 19-year-old against her will. A settlement required changes at the school, but Wills ultimately shuttered it and relocated to Missouri in 1987.
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Missouri law exempts religious boarding schools like Mountain Park from state regulation and oversight.
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