State agrees to settle Heartland Academy lawsuits

Thursday, December 22, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Four years after a juvenile officer ordered the removal of 115 students from Heartland Christian Academy over child abuse concerns, the state has agreed to pay $775,000 to settle lawsuits filed by the northeast Missouri school for troubled youths.

"No one enjoys this type of thing -- there's no winner in this," Charles Sharpe, founder and president of Heartland and CNS International Ministries, said Wednesday. "The thing of it is, we had to do it because the state has to be let known that it is not in charge of kids. The state is saying the parents may be smart enough to have a child, but they're not smart enough to raise it."

In 2004, a federal judge in St. Louis ordered juvenile officer Mike Waddle to pay more than $800,000 to cover Heartland's attorney fees and other costs associated with the lawsuit. The settlement covers those fees. The 2004 ruling also prohibited Waddle from future removal of children from Heartland unless there was imminent danger to them.

Waddle will not pay the money from his own pocket; it will be paid from the state's Legal Expense Fund, said Scott Holste, a spokesman for Attorney General Jay Nixon, whose office represented the state in the lawsuit.

"This brings to a close this issue," Holste said.

Sharpe, a millionaire insurance executive, built the sprawling 18,000-acre Heartland campus in the middle of cornfields in Lewis County in the late 1990s. The school now has 265 students. It relies on a strict Christian doctrine and corporal punishment to try and turn around wayward children and teenagers in kindergarten through high school.

Waddle worked in Kirksville, about 40 miles from Heartland. In May 2001, after reports of abuse at the school, Waddle ordered school buses to remove children and take them to a detention center in Kirksville.

Within days, dozens of parents and students came out in support of the school, saying the alleged abuses were nothing more than necessary discipline. A short time later, a judge allowed the children to return.

Heartland sued Waddle and others, claiming the raid was an abuse of power.

Sharpe has spent more than $4.6 million defending Heartland against a laundry list of charges largely related to its discipline methods. He contends strict discipline is needed to try to turn around troubled young lives.

Criminal charges are still pending in two separate cases against Heartland staffers, Sharpe said. One case stems from an incident in which misbehaving children were allegedly forced to stand in piles of manure as punishment; the other alleges excessive paddlings. Sharpe said the charges are without merit.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: