‘Missouri is becoming a safer place.’ Third boarding school closes, former students say

·6 min read
Jill Toyoshiba/jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

A third boarding school in southwest Missouri, led by a former long-time staffer of the embattled Agape Boarding School, has closed, according to past students who have communicated with that owner.

Legacy Academy Adventures, which opened in May 2020, served boys ages 9 to 15. Owner Brent Jackson left Agape in 2018 after working there for 18 years, including time as the school’s dean of students.

“Yes, it is closed,” Jackson told two of his former students — James Griffey and Josh Bradney — in Facebook messages in recent days shared with The Star.

The closure leaves Agape Boarding School — where five staffers currently face low-level felony charges alleging that they assaulted students — as the only unlicensed Christian boarding school remaining in Cedar County, where there once were four. Schools like these often operate under the radar in secluded, rural areas of the state.

Emails sent from The Star to Jackson’s personal email address were returned undelivered. Jackson hasn’t responded to another message sent through Facebook or to another account associated with him. He also hasn’t responded to a voicemail left Monday morning.

A Google listing says the school is “permanently closed,” and the school’s website, Facebook page and Instagram account are no longer in operation.

“Originally we had hoped to have a program for younger guys (ages 9-14 who were just starting to have trouble and were wanting help) where we could help them from ending up at places like agape,” Jackson wrote to the two former students he supervised at Agape.

“Overall, it was positive to work in a ministry that actually had the young man’s interest at heart but we are definitely ready to move on to what’s next.”

Griffey, 39, of southern California, told The Star he received the message on Thursday after he contacted Jackson and asked if rumors he’d been hearing about the school being closed were true. Bradney, 20, also from California, said he received the message from Jackson on Saturday after inquiring about the school’s status.

“I’m glad Missouri is becoming a safer place and people are realizing that these schools shouldn’t be open and that more people are speaking out,” said Bradney, one of 19 former Agape students who have lawsuits pending against that school.

Two years ago, before allegations of abuse surfaced at Circle of Hope Girls Ranch, there were four unlicensed Christian boarding schools operating in rural Cedar County. Now there is just Agape.

Circle of Hope Girls Ranch near Humansville closed in September 2020 after authorities removed the more than 20 students amid an investigation into abuse allegations against owners Boyd and Stephanie Householder. The Householders were charged last year with nearly 100 felony counts of abuse, including statutory sodomy, rape, physical abuse and neglect.

And Wings of Faith Academy near Stockton, a Christian boarding school for girls, closed on June 1 after 18 years in Cedar County. It was considered a sister school to Agape.

The Star has interviewed more than 70 former Agape students as part of an investigation into the state’s unlicensed boarding schools. Those students attended the school over a period spanning nearly three decades. The men shared emotional descriptions of beatings, long days of manual labor, food and water withheld as punishment, excruciating physical restraints and constant berating and mind games.

Numerous students who spent time at Agape told The Star that Jackson was among the top staffers who was verbally and physically abusive at times. At least one student said Jackson apologized to him years later about the abuse he said he suffered at the school.

The recent closings come as religious boarding schools in Missouri, which for nearly four decades were exempt from state oversight, have been under increased scrutiny. Prompted by The Star’s stories of abuse at several of the state’s unlicensed boarding schools, the General Assembly passed a measure last year that for the first time gave the state oversight over these facilities.

Jackson opened Legacy Boys Academy for the purpose of “training up Godly young boys…,” according to the school’s former website.

Its mission, according to the site: “To influence, instruct and inspire young men who are struggling with emotional, behavioral and educational issues.”

Jackson changed the school’s name to Legacy Academy Adventures on Aug. 2, 2021, corporation records show.

The school was originally located in a rural area between Stockton and Jerico Springs in Cedar County on property owned by David Smock, a local doctor who for years provided medical care to Agape students. Smock came to Missouri from Arizona and in 2006 built an 11-bedroom mansion with an indoor pool and gymnasium on the property at 6360 E. 1570 Road, which he used as his home and business addresses.

Prosecutors in two southwest Missouri counties charged Smock in December with numerous child sex crimes. The charges against Smock came three months after five staffers at Agape Boarding School were charged with assaulting students. One of the defendants, Seth Duncan, is Smock’s son-in-law. And at the time the charges were filed against them, court records showed, Duncan and Agape staffer Trent Hartman listed the address of Smock’s mansion as their home. Hartman has since moved to Colorado, court records show.

Both Agape officials and Jackson tried to distance themselves from Smock after he was charged. In an email to The Star in late December, Jackson said the academy “had leased a portion of a building as well as a portion of property to start our program but was not directly involved with Dr. Smock.”

But photos posted on Legacy’s Facebook page — now taken down — showed images of inside and outside the mansion, including the kitchen, gym and swimming pool.

Jackson told The Star that the academy had been “completely removed from that property since September 30 of 2020.” The state investigation into Smock began about a week later. “To my knowledge, not one of our students were ever even in the presence of Dr. David Smock,” Jackson said in the email.

“Both myself and Legacy Academy Adventures welcome a high level of transparency, accountability as well as safety and security for the young people and their parents that we are privileged to work with,” Jackson said. “We want the children to be safe and happy and well taken care of.”

Jackson also serves as senior pastor at Liberty Baptist Church of Lamar, Missouri — which, like Agape Baptist, is an independent fundamental Baptist church. IFB churches teach followers to separate themselves from worldly influence.