By MARY POLETTI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- A federal jury in St. Louis on Thursday ruled against Heartland Christian Academy in a lawsuit alleging that its constitutional rights were violated when the state of Missouri raided its rural Northeast Missouri compound in 2001 and seized 115 students.
Reached by phone, the school's founder, Pastor Charles Sharpe, said his organization will not appeal the decision and added that, as a balm of sorts, 15 former students will split nearly half a million dollars in an out-of-court settlement.
The jury rejected claims that the evangelical Christian boarding school was the target of a harassment campaign from the state and denied the lawsuit's request for financial compensation. The 14-year-old school is part of Sharpe's Heartland Ministries compound in rural northern Shelby, southern Knox and southwestern Lewis counties.
The state's October 2001 raid, which removed all but five of Heartland's students, followed a state investigation of child abuse claims after it was discovered that the school punished its traditionally at-risk students by paddling them and forcing them to stand hip-deep in manure. Five employees were charged in connection with that alleged abuse, but all were acquitted or had the charges dropped.
Students were allowed to return a few days after the raid, but Heartland contends that parents were threatened with criminal charges and custody suits if they returned their children to Heartland, and that this explains why 32 students never returned after the raid.
Heartland and some families subsequently sued, with a federal judge barring further such removals in 2004. The plaintiffs in this suit included Heartland, two former students and the father of another former student, who made some 40 claims in what was ultimately a three-week trial with a day and a half of jury deliberations.
Fifteen students settled out of court with the state for a total of $450,000, Sharpe said. That check has yet to be issued.
Heartland has remained open and now enrolls about 225 students, many still there to deal with behavioral and substance abuse problems. Sharpe said the school now has a "wonderful" relationship with the state. It also enjoys a smooth relationship with local officials, said Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish, who said he testified in the St. Louis trial Monday but declined to comment further.
Nanci Gonder of the Missouri Attorney General's Office said in a statement that the state's top litigators were glad the St. Louis jury had absolved them of any blame in the Heartland case.
"We are pleased the jury determined, after hearing all of the evidence in this case, that the individual defendants and the state of Missouri are not liable or responsible for the payment of the monies sought by the plaintiffs in the Heartland Academy suit," Gonder said. "We congratulate our trial team, who worked many months to prepare the defense of this case in order to assure that the jury had before it all the relevant facts with which to make their decision."
Sharpe said Heartland Ministries, which has been in court a dozen times, most likely will not appeal this, its first loss.
"I'm really not blaming the jury. It was an extremely difficult case," Sharpe said. "We lost. What else you gonna say? ... And we're probably not going to do anything more about it. ... We want to get it behind us and go on down the road and do our thing."
This story contains information from an Associated Press report.