Enough harm to Missouri teenagers: It’s long past time to close Agape Boarding School

Jill Toyoshiba/Star file photo

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s renewed efforts to shut down the deeply troubled Agape Boarding School in Stockton — and calls for federal intervention in the matter — are welcome developments in the long-running and disturbing case.

Agape is an ongoing menace that must be closed, as soon as possible, by the courts, the state, or the federal government — whichever can move most quickly.

For more than a year, The Star and other news organizations have detailed credible reports of abuse and neglect at Agape, and the apparent ongoing threat to dozens of teenagers still living there. That reporting prompted a belated but necessary investigation by state authorities, who now claim multiple violations of the law at the facility.

Yet Agape remains open. Cedar County Circuit Judge David Munton has issued a series of muddled, inconsistent rulings in the case. Local authorities in Cedar County seem more interested in protecting Agape than protecting the kids who live there.

“The state has real, immediate concerns regarding the health and safety of the children at Agape,” Schmitt said in a filing Monday. “The state has real, immediate concerns that children may be subject to further incidents of abuse or neglect, or may be victims of criminal conduct at Agape.”

The school must close, and the children relocated to facilities where they are fully protected from abuse.

That’s one reason Missouri House Speaker Rob Vescovo has pressed for federal intervention in the case. In a letter to Teresa Moore, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, Vescovo claimed Agape represents “organized crime against children.”

Vescovo sharply criticized local attempts to address problems at the school. “Unfortunately, the prosecutor is just one more in a long line of local officials who have either turned a blind eye to, or helped to cover up, the criminal actions of the staff at Agape,” he wrote.

“The ties that law enforcement officers have to the school,” Vescovo said, “have made it clear the best interests of these young people are not a priority.”

Monday, the U.S. attorney’s office declined comment. Agape’s attorney called Vescovo’s letter “defamatory.”

Yet no one can reasonably deny the ongoing testimony of teenagers who have been kept at the school. The Missouri Department of Social Services claims Agape students “have suffered physical abuse through physical restraints, extreme workouts, long days of manual labor, food and water withheld as punishment, constant berating and mind games, and sexual abuse,” according to the state filing.

The school’s record is clear and appalling. Adults must protect children from this kind of behavior and must quickly intervene to close the facility.

We think the state has moved too slowly over the past year to intervene at Agape. But there will be plenty of time to sort out the responsibility for inaction in the weeks ahead. For now, the school must close, the kids must be relocated and treated, and the truth made public.