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Inside recent years of controversy at Agape Boarding School — with Rolling Stone

Cedar County Courthouse with the flags of the United States and Missouri.
Gregory Holman/KSMU
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Cedar County Courthouse is shown in March 2022.

Recently, Agape Boarding School in Cedar County announced it would close. The news came after years of allegations of severe child abuse at the Christian reform school.

Josh Bradney is 21 years old, living in California. But from 2014 to 2016, he was a student at Agape. More recently, he sued the school. Bradney alleges he was abused by staff.

“So it was emotionally, physically and sexually," Bradney told a KSMU reporter.

Agape was located near Stockton from 1996 until its announced closure last Friday. That’s according to a news release by Bryan Clemensen, former school director. 

KSMU asked Bradney for his reaction. He said, “Well, it’s very emotional, but also it’s very rewarding because I can finally sleep at night knowing that there's no kids right now gonna be abused at that school anymore.” 

Bradney is not the only former student to sue Agape. There are roughly 20 lawsuits to date. On January 9, four plaintiffs filed suit in the federal court of the Western District of Missouri, shifting earlier cases filed in state courts. 

Lawyers allege the former students were abused. Each of the four suits calls out 11 people linked to Agape by name, including the former director.  

Among other claims of wrongdoing, court filings allege these 11 had, “dangerous propensities to commit inappropriate physical and abusive contact with students."

The former director and his attorney did not respond to repeated requests for comment from KSMU, other than to provide a news release about Agape’s plans to shut down, citing financial issues. 

On Monday, three days after the school was set to close, someone answered the phone by saying "Agape Boarding School," when a KSMU reporter called. The person on Agape’s phone line said Clemensen was away from the school that day.

A handful of people linked to Agape have also been criminally charged by the local prosecutor — many fewer people than desired by Missouri’s former attorney general, Eric Schmitt.

As KSMU reported in September, federal prosecutors recently accused a former Agape dean of forcibly transporting a teenager, in handcuffs, during a 27-hour drive from the West Coast to Stockton. 

In 2021, the Cedar County prosecutor filed low-level felony assault charges against five people linked to the school.  

That decision rankled former Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, elected to the U.S. Senate in November. Schmitt’s office wanted to charge 22 Agape staffers with more serious crimes.  

By last month, Missouri court records show that charges in most of the cases had been reduced to misdemeanors. The Associated Press reported that one case was dropped completely, after an alleged victim didn’t show up in court to testify. 

Three defendants got probation and suspended sentences. Missouri court filings also show that a week before Agape closed, the FBI requested records about one of the five cases. One case is ongoing, with two felony third-degree assault charges that could carry a punishment of up to four years in prison. 

Observers within and outside of southwest Missouri took note of the Agape controversy since people started discussing it online in mid-2020. The school is a 70-minute drive from Springfield, but most news coverage of Agape was led by two investigative reporters at the Kansas City Star.

The week before Agape said it would close, Rolling Stone magazine published an extensive article. Writer Adam Piore traced Agape’s history from its origins in California around 1990 — through its later moves to the state of Washington, then Missouri. 

KSMU talked to Piore on January 9, two days before the school said it would shut down.

"I had heard about these schools and the troubled teen industry," Piore said, "but it was a pretty fascinating story. So I just kind of went down that rabbit hole and started reading about Agape, and I started reading about the troubled teen industry. And there's, you know, there's legislation in Washington, D.C. to better regulate it.”

Piore said he attended a court date in Cedar County. He told me that even though he’s covered a lot of trials in his time as a reporter, he’s not an attorney. But — he found the Cedar County courtroom quite unusual.

Piore said, "I was pretty shocked. I mean, I was surprised by how unsympathetic the judge was to the allegations being made and the state's case and how sympathetic he seemed to be to the Agape case. He seemed to be bending over backwards to rule in Agape’s favor on almost everything.” 

KSMU reached out to the judge, David Munton. Through a representative, he “indicated judges are not able to comment on court cases.”

Unlike many news reporters covering Agape, Piore landed an interview with the school’s former director, Bryan Clemensen, while visiting the campus.  

Piore said Clemensen "was kind of trying to get me to leave, but I was just like, you know, Mr. Clemensen, it's really easy, you know, to get the story of the allegations of what Agape is doing wrong, but I'd love to hear your side of it. I mean, that's the part that hasn't been told. And I said, even if you are abusing these kids, I assume you have a reason to do so, you know, in your mind, there must be some reason that you think this works. And he said to me, what they're alleging would never be okay. We don't abuse — we're not, we haven't abused students. It's only a small group of students who are making these allegations. I can put you in touch with people who, who, you know, thank me.” 

As KSMU wrapped up conversation with Piore, a reporter asked if he knew how many students were still on campus. Piore said he thought there were about 20; on the day news broke that Agape would close, Frances Watson with KYTV in Springfield reported on air there were just two students left, citing an unnamed source. 

Repeatedly, KSMU reached out to the former Agape director and his attorney about the number of remaining students. They did not respond. 

Piore’s full story about Agape is available on RollingStone.com. 

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs and investigations.