New Missouri judge sets hearing on closing of Agape Boarding School over reported abuse

Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com

Missouri child welfare workers got approval Tuesday afternoon to resume their round-the-clock monitoring at Agape Boarding School to ensure that students are safe.

One day after a southwest Missouri judge ordered state Department of Social Services workers to leave the school near Stockton — where they’d been stationed since Sept. 8 — a different judge ruled that they could return.

Judge Thomas Pyle issued the ruling during a 2 p.m. conference call with attorneys involved in the case. Pyle is now handling the case because Judge David Munton granted Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s request for a new judge.

Pyle also scheduled a two-day hearing next month to hear evidence and testimony related to the petition by the attorney general’s office and DSS to shut down Agape to protect students.

During the call with the new judge, attorneys from the attorney general’s office asked Pyle to place child welfare workers back in the school. Munton had lifted that order Monday after the AG’s office said it intended to ask for the case to be dismissed from his court.

“Court orders that between the time of this entry and the scheduled hearing for October 13 and 14, 2022, that Children’s Division have 24-hour access to the Agape facility to observe the children there,” said Pyle’s decision posted on Missouri’s online court docket Tuesday afternoon.

Agape’s attorney, John Schultz, said the school remains open.

“We are pleased that the judge did not grant the state’s request to immediately shut down Agape Boarding School,” Schultz told The Star. “Agape is in operation. Kids are being cared for 24/7, they’re being educated. The students at Agape are not facing immediate harm as the state argued.

“We look forward to having a trial in this matter beginning on October 13th where actual evidence, versus unfounded allegations, can be heard and considered.”

Schultz said students were moved into five homes located on Agape property on Monday.

“They’re down to 44 boys,” he said. “And because of that, they don’t need all the employees that they had. So they’ve reduced the workforce…The sleeping quarters and the gym, the movie room, none of that’s being used while the boys are in group homes.”

Caitlin Whaley, DSS’ director of policy and communications, said Children’s Division staff were en route Tuesday afternoon to “assess the situation.”

“Once the assessment is done, we will make a decision on how to best move forward,” Whaley told The Star. “We maintain that the only true way to make sure these kids are safe is to close the facility.”

Earlier Tuesday, Munton granted Schmitt’s motion to dismiss his petition to shut down the Cedar County school, allowing him to refile it in Pyle’s court.

In addition to filing for a change of judge Monday, the attorney general’s office filed another petition asking the judge to close the school and included detailed abuse allegations current students revealed to DSS workers in recent days.

Schultz quickly filed motions Tuesday in response to the new case. One was a demand for a jury trial — a request that Munton previously denied. Another was a motion calling for the AG’s new petition to be “swiftly dismissed.”

Pyle took those motions under advisement.

The attorney general’s office and the DSS have been trying to shut down the embattled school since Sept. 7, when they filed a motion for “injunctive relief,” saying the safety of students was in jeopardy. DSS officials had learned that a current staffer had just been placed on the Central Registry for child abuse and neglect, and state law doesn’t allow anyone with a substantiated report to work at a residential facility.

Within hours, Munton signed an order calling for the immediate closure of Agape.

But the next morning, as the AG’s Office and DSS were prepared to execute the order, Munton put it on hold, saying he wanted to confirm that the staffer was still at the school near Stockton. Munton sent Cedar County Sheriff James “Jimbob” McCrary to the school to find out, and Agape director Bryan Clemensen told McCrary that he had fired that staffer on Sept. 7 and the worker no longer lived on the school’s property.

Two hearings have been held since then and the AG’s office has had testimony prepared and recent students ready to take the stand and describe the abuse boys at the school endure. Munton refused to let those students testify and delayed action at both hearings.