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More former students sue over alleged abuse at boarding school


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Nine former students of a now-closed boarding school have filed lawsuits this month saying they suffered severe abuse as part of a “culture of silence and secrecy” among officials at two schools in West Virginia and Tennessee.

The lawsuits, filed in Kanawha Circuit Court from Oct. 13-17, are the latest legal actions taken in the case of Miracle Meadows School in Salem, Harrison County. Two other former students filed a similar lawsuit in January.

The former students said school staff sexually assaulted and mentally and physically abused them while denying them food and an education at the school, which state officials closed in 2014, following the arrest of two employees on child abuse and neglect charges.

Miracle Meadows is one of 14 defendants named in each of the lawsuits. Other defendants include Susan Gayle Clark, former director of Miracle Meadows; Seventh-Day Adventist Church North American Division and the Advent Home Learning Center in Calhoun, Tennessee, about 45 minutes northwest of Chattanooga; and its director, Blondel Senior.

All of the plaintiffs were minors during their time at the schools, and they are identified by their initials in the complaints filed in court last week.

The plaintiffs said they suffered serious physical harm, vocational impairment, mental and emotional distress, and other damage as a result of their treatment at Miracle Meadows and Advent Home.

Each plaintiff is seeking unspecified compensatory, punitive and other damages.

The first lawsuit in Kanawha County against Miracle Meadows was filed Jan. 27 by two former students.

On Jan. 26, the building that had been the girls dormitory at Miracle Meadows burned down, according to a report from the State Fire Marshal’s Office filed in one case. An investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office was unable to determine the cause of the fire and whether it was arson, according to the report.

Attorneys in the lawsuit filed in January also filed a motion for a protective order for evidence at the Miracle Meadows facility.

Miracle Meadows was closed in 2014 after the former director, Clark, and a progress coach at the school, Timothy Aaron Arrington, were arrested.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources removed 19 minors, who were students at the school at the time.

Arrington was charged with three felony counts of child abuse creating risk of serious injury and one count of child abuse resulting in injury, according to a report from The Exponent-Telegram in Clarksburg.

Charges against Arrington still are pending in Harrison County Circuit Court.

Clark pleaded guilty to one count each of child neglect creating risk of injury, failure to report and obstruction, and she was sentenced in April 2016 to six months in jail followed by five years probation, according to The Exponent-Telegram report.

The lawsuits reference the charges against Arrington and Clark, as well as an appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court in 2000 regarding whether DHHR investigators could compel the school to provide medical records for and interview all of the students at the school.

Justices upheld a ruling in Ritchie County Circuit Court that prevented the DHHR from accessing medical records of those students “who were not the subject of abuse and neglect.”

In their ruling on the appeal, the justices acknowledged DHHR officials in 1999 were investigating whether five students — three girls and two boys — were being abused by officials and staff at the school.

Based on the initials of the plaintiffs in the 2017 lawsuits and the names listed in the 2000 Supreme Court case, the people filing suit in Kanawha County are different from the four students named as victims of the abuse allegations in the 1999 investigation that led to the Supreme Court appeal in 2000.

The plaintiffs in this month’s lawsuits said the abuse officials and staff committed against them took place after the Supreme Court appeal.

While at the school, the plaintiffs said they were placed in “quarantine rooms,” which were windowless rooms, either 5-feet-by-5-feet or 10-feet-by-4-feet, without plumbing, heating or cooling. There was a bucket in which to use the bathroom.

The plaintiffs said they were nude in the quarantine rooms and often were bound with duct tape or handcuffs, and they typically were fed little more than fruit and bread or rice and beans, according to the complaints.

The plaintiffs also alleged they were sexually assaulted and abused and placed in headlocks while in quarantine, with one plaintiff saying he was choked to the point of unconsciousness at least once.

Per the quarantine at Miracle Meadows, the students said they were required to memorize Bible verses and write out Bible chapters. If they got any part of the Bible verses wrong, they would have to stay longer in quarantine, the plaintiffs said in the lawsuits.

Some of the students who said they were quarantined at Miracle Meadows said they previously were students at Advent Home. They said they similarly were abused at both locations.

Those students who were at both schools said they were transferred from Advent Home to Miracle Meadows as part of an effort by officials at both schools to avoid inquiry and investigation and conceal their conduct, according to the lawsuits.

According to the complaints, Miracle Meadows was a Christian boarding school for boys and girls 6 to 17 years of age “who are experiencing difficulty relating in a positive way to family, school, church or community” or are experiencing “dishonesty, school failure, trouble with the law, spiritual disinterest, poor social skills, adoption issues, and other behavior that is harmful to them and others.”

Advent Home is described as a “Christian-based residential learning center for struggling young men ages 12-18, who are struggling with academic, emotional and behavioral issues.”

Advent Home officials claimed to be able to reverse Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder in children.

The lawsuit in January was filed by attorney Guy R. Bucci, V. Paul Bucci II and Brian D. Kent. This month’s suits were filed by Guy Bucci, V. Paul Bucci II and Kent, along with R. Scott Long, Ashley N. Lynch and John K. Cecil.

To date, four of the cases have been assigned to Judge Tod Kaufman. Two of the cases, including the one filed in January, have been assigned to Judge Joanna Tabit, and Judge Charles King also is presiding over proceedings in two of the suits. One of the suits was assigned to Judge Jennifer Bailey, and one remained unassigned last week.

The cases are expected to be ready for trial by June 2018.

Reach Lacie Pierson at [email protected], 304-348-1723 or follow @laciepierson on Twitter.

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