Christian academy's lawsuit put on hold

Saturday, August 16, 2003

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- The trial in Heartland Christian Academy's lawsuit against two juvenile officers and a county sheriff is on hold for about a month.

U.S. District E. Judge Richard Webber on Thursday ordered the recess until Sept. 15, citing scheduling conflicts -- he presides over another trial that starts next week. Webber had hoped that the trial, which began July 21 at the federal courthouse in Hannibal, would be wrap up this week.

The northeast Missouri school for troubled youths was raided Oct. 30, 2001, following a series of abuse allegations. School buses were brought in and 115 students were removed. Three days later, a judge allowed the children to return.

Heartland founder Charles Sharpe's lawsuit accuses juvenile officers Michael Waddle and Cindy Kennel Ayers and Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish of constitutional violations stemming from the raid. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

Heartland alleges that the defendants engaged in a "systematic persistent and continuous campaign of harassment and intimidation" in an attempt to disrupt and destroy the school. Sharpe, a millionaire insurance executive, founded the academy in the mid-1990s on 20,000 acres about 150 miles north of St. Louis. No Heartland officials have ever been convicted of wrongdoing, but Sharpe has spent more than $2 million defending Heartland against charges, largely over the strong forms of discipline.

Sharpe has said such treatment was appropriate, given his belief that America's youths are falling prey to drugs, sex and violence because public institutions are godless and parents have backed away from corporal punishment.

About 300 students now attend Heartland, many of them with histories of behavioral and criminal problems.

'Dumb as a rock'

In testimony Thursday, Sharpe was questioned by defense attorneys who cited a case where misbehaving students were forced to stand in a pit and shovel manure.

Sharpe said the punishment did not hurt the children but called the decision to use it "dumb as a rock."

"We don't want Heartland's name tied to manure," he said.

"There is no question the people used very bad judgment in doing this."

Assigning students to the manure pit was a punishment for skipping school and meant to show students the kinds of future they could have without an education, Sharpe said. He added that all of the students "did want to go back to school the next day."

The manure pit incident and other abuse allegations led to felony child abuse charges against three Heartland staffers. No trial date has been set.

Sharpe acknowledged 44 Hotline calls about possible child abuse at Heartland and was shown photos showing students with bruises allegedly caused by spankings. He said he does not consider bruises injuries.

"If there is a broken bone or bloodshed, that is abuse," he said.

Sharpe said he is committed to "keeping kids safe. That is our number one priority. I don't want to swat, but sometimes we have to."

Sharpe said the program works, noting that of 54 Heartland graduates, "only one has had a run-in with the law."

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