U.S. judge rules for Baptist school
By Matt Franck,
Post-Dispatch, April 13, 2004

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. - A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a Baptist reform school did not violate federal labor laws when it forced a student to perform hours of chores for no money.

U.S. District Court Judge Charles A. Shaw's ruling is the latest of a string of victories for Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy, whose operators had faced a long list of accusations in a civil lawsuit. The school is near Patterson, Mo., in Wayne County, in the southeast part of the state.

The only claim remaining is an allegation that an employee shoved a student against a sink. That matter is expected to go to a jury today.

"This is part of a crusade by a few individuals against fundamentalist Christian schools," said John Oliver, a Cape Girardeau lawyer representing Mountain Park.

In the original lawsuit, Arkansas resident Jordan Blair, 19, had claimed that while he was at the school in 2001, he was falsely imprisoned, and that his civil rights were violated through austere forms of punishment.

Before the trial began Monday most of the lawsuit had been rejected. Shaw ruled last month that the school could not have falsely imprisoned the boy because his parents had a right to keep him there against his will. The judge also ruled against claims accusing other school employees of battery.

At the trial, Blair's attorney, Oscar Stilley, described Mountain Park as a kind of labor camp, where teens are forced to work without pay while providing personal and financial benefits to the school.

Those representing the teen ministry said work is an integral part of their efforts to save troubled youth.

The judge concurred, saying that the work was "for the educational benefit of the students and not the school."

Closing arguments are set today on Blair's claim that he was shoved on his first day at the school. The person accused, Bo Gerhardt, testified that the incident never took place. Another former worker testified that he was present and did not see Blair being shoved.

As Stilley tried to portray inhumane treatment at the school, the judge chastised him for trying to argue parts of the lawsuit that had been tossed out. The judge threatened to jail Stilley for contempt.

Mountain Park is one of several teen reform ministries in Missouri, where state regulations are scarce. The schools generally rely on Bible teachings, strict discipline and corporal punishment to turn teens around.

Some of the schools have been accused in civil and criminal court cases of using excessive discipline.

Two former Mountain Park students who had been set to testify were not allowed by the judge because he said Stilley did not inform the defense within the proper timeframe.

Angela Collier, who attended Mountain Park, was one of the witnesses excluded. She said she had waited 10 years to describe in court what goes on in the school.

She said while Blair's lawsuit failed in court, she believes the publicity surrounding it hurt the school's enrollment.

One of the school's founders, Betty Wills, testified that about 80 students attended Mountain Park in 2001 when Blair was a student. She said the figure today is closer to 40 because "we just haven't had the calls for students" as in the past.

Reporter Matt Franck
E-mail: mfranck@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 573-635-6178

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