ST. LOUIS (AP) Before his parents shipped him off to the Heartland Christian Academy, 16-year-old Tim Hans was struggling in school and messing with drugs and the occult.
After nearly a year at the academy, considered a last resort for difficult youngsters, Tim has righted his course. No more rebellion or fits of rage. The straight-A student, now respectful and polite, has found God.
“It’s kind of a total overhaul of the mind,” he says.
Now the academy that markets its tough love faces troubled times itself. Prosecutors are calling its form of discipline abuse.
In June, five Heartland workers were accused of sending 11 misbehaving teen-agers to shovel manure, at times in a pit filled with animal waste and afterbirth. Two months later, four Heartland workers including two already charged in the manure incident were accused of spanking a teen 30 times with a board.
Authorities removed 115 Heartland students in October after a 13-year-old boy reported another Heartland worker burst his eardrum. Parents, some from as far as Texas and California, were called to retrieve the children.
About 80 have since returned to the school after a judge intervened, according to Charles Sharpe, Heartland’s founder and senior pastor.
“It’s an evil attack,” Mr. Sharpe fumes. The former Kansas City insurance executive pledges to spend his fortune estimated in the tens of millions “and every drop of blood in my body” to defend the 200-acre religious community 150 miles north of St. Louis where work therapy is combined with Christian teachings.
The 74-year-old Mr. Sharpe, known at Heartland as Pastor Charlie, maintains no child gets more than five “swats,” and says the 13-year-old was struck accidentally by a worker trying to free his arm from the boy’s jaws.
For now, a federal judge is allowing juvenile authorities to seek removal of any Heartland child considered at risk, but he has barred any mass removals pending a final ruling.
Heartland’s operators are suing authorities in federal court, complaining of a “systematic, persistent and continuous campaign of harassment.” Joshua Eads, a 17-year-old Heartland student, also is suing local investigators, charging he was unjustly held for 12 days on suspicion he was involved in the manure-pit incident.
“We don’t believe in abusing kids,” Mr. Sharpe says. “In society today, any time you correct or discipline a child, in the eyes of many it’s abuse.”
Sheriff David Parrish, a father of two who says he shoveled pig manure as part of a boyhood summer job, counters: “We believe it was abuse, and I’m comfortable with what a jury will say.”
Sheriff Parrish says the youngsters were forced to stand for up to two hours in manure piles brimming with bacteria. He says some witnesses told him children were forced to stand in manure up to their chests, though others dispute that.
Mr. Sharpe says he believes many of the abuse accusations come from troubled youths usually new arrivals who often would “rather be on the streets, doing drugs and having sex.”
Heartland children run the community’s two eateries and work on its 7,000-cow dairy farm as they work toward a high school diploma or an equivalency degree. Only adults now shovel manure on the dairy farm.