New judge will hear Missouri attorney general’s request to close Agape Boarding School

Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com

A southwest Missouri judge on Tuesday granted Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s petition to dismiss his case to shut down Agape Boarding School, allowing him to refile it in another court.

Judge David Munton dismissed the case “without prejudice,” meaning it can be transferred to another circuit judge and heard in his court. Had Munton dismissed it “with prejudice,” the case would have been over and could not have been refiled in Cedar County.

The case has been reassigned to Judge Thomas Pyle, and a conference call is scheduled with attorneys on both sides for 2 p.m. Tuesday, according to the state’s online court docket.

One of the first things the AG’s Office is expected to do is ask Pyle to again place workers with the Missouri Department of Social Services back at Agape, the unlicensed boarding school near Stockton. Munton had required the workers to be at the school since Sept. 8 to ensure students’ safety, but he lifted that order Monday after the AG’s office said it intended to ask for the case to be dismissed from his court.

In addition to filing for a change of judge Monday, the Attorney General’s office filed another petition that detailed abuse allegations current students revealed to child welfare workers in recent days. Pyle will now hear that petition.

Agape’s attorney, John Schultz, argued that the case should be dismissed “with prejudice” and essentially thrown out. He cited a Missouri Supreme Court rule that says a case cannot be dismissed without prejudice after evidence has been presented.

Schultz pointed to a Sept. 12 hearing in Cedar County when a former Agape student took the stand and answered a couple of questions, including stating his name. When the teen said he had left Agape in July 2021, Schultz objected and said because he couldn’t testify to anything currently going on at the school, his testimony would be irrelevant.

Munton agreed and would not let the former student testify further.

Schultz told The Star that even that brief testimony constituted evidence being presented in the case.

Tuesday’s ruling is one more development in a case packed with back and forth legal maneuvering in recent weeks.

The Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Social Services have tried to shut down the embattled school since Sept. 7. That day, they filed a motion for “injunctive relief” saying the safety of students inside the school 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.

In another development, the Missouri Speaker of the House wrote a letter last week asking the U.S. Attorney to intervene and help shut down the school. Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, blasted local authorities — including Munton and Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney Ty Gaither — for not closing the school or holding people accountable.

And the AG’s office and DSS said they received new information last week that Agape planned to disband the boarding school and open multiple group homes on the property under the name Stone of Help.

The two staffers — Jennifer and Jason Derksen — filed the paperwork with the Missouri secretary of state on Sept. 15 describing their new nonprofit, Stone of Help, as a “Home for Troubled Youth.” The address for Stone of Help and the Derksens is on the Agape property and next to the current unlicensed boarding school.