Two new lawsuits accuse Missouri boarding school of abuse including starvation, torture

Jill Toyoshiba/jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com
·5 min read

Two more former students are suing Agape Boarding School, with allegations including starvation and torture, bringing the total number of lawsuits to 21 since early last year.

The lawsuits accuse Agape Boarding School and Agape Baptist Church, which oversees the southwest Missouri school, of negligence, infliction of emotional distress and physical abuse by staff and fellow students. One also alleges sexual abuse.

The civil suits were filed last month in Cedar and Vernon counties. The men, who attended Agape Boarding School in Stockton between 2013 and 2020, are requesting jury trials and seeking unspecified amounts in damages.

In one suit, filed July 5 in Cedar County Circuit Court, the plaintiff — referred to as T.D. of Arizona — accuses a former Agape dean of students of repeated emotional and physical abuse. In some instances, the lawsuit alleges, Julio Sandoval would use T.D. to “demonstrate” wrestling moves by putting him in a headlock position, choking him and throwing him against walls.

“During one of many incidents, Julio Sandoval pushed Plaintiff’s head against the wall and ordered him to do push-ups as punishment,” the lawsuit alleges.

The suit also says that “many times, in the workout room, Julio Sandoval would aggressively push students, including Plaintiff, and continually intimidate students to fight him until students agreed. In those instances, Plaintiff was repeatedly punched and hit until he was on the ground.”

T.D. attended Agape from 2013 to 2017, the lawsuit says. Sandoval, who worked at Agape for 10 years, left the boarding school after five staffers were charged with abuse last September. He’s now the director at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Piedmont, which is operated by ABM Ministries, according to that boarding school’s registration with the Missouri Department of Social Services.

When reached by phone on Monday, Sandoval declined to discuss the lawsuit.

“No, ma’am, I wasn’t aware of that one, and I don’t have a comment,” he said. “Thank you. I do appreciate your time, though.”

Agape officials did not respond Monday to requests for comment. They have not responded to requests from The Star for comment on any of the stories it has published about the school.

The other plaintiff, referred to as W.H., filed a lawsuit July 7 in Vernon County Circuit Court. He is from Kansas, the lawsuit says, and attended Agape from December 2019 until July 2020.

While in the school’s custody, the suit alleges, W.H. “was the victim of multiple incidents of physical and emotional abuse, as well as sexual assault, perpetrated by several agents, servants, and employees of Defendant Agape.“

The school was aware of the abuse, the lawsuit says, “but the incidents were not adequately investigated or reported, and no steps were taken to protect Plaintiff from further incidents of abuse.”

The new lawsuits also allege that Agape violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, committing fraud and deception by misrepresenting or concealing information given to the students and their families. Among the examples cited:

Parents were told that Agape does not participate in any form of corporal punishment, chokeholds or physical restraints, other than briefly in situations in which the student may be an imminent threat to himself or others.

But the lawsuits allege that students “were subject to extreme punishment and torture, which consisted of severe physical and emotional abuse lasting longer than a few minutes without any regard to whether the child was an imminent threat to himself or others.”

Agape said it provided excellent meals and did not withhold food, when in reality, students would be subjected to severe restrictions, according to the lawsuits. Students receiving the strictest form of discipline, the lawsuits say, “were constantly starved and fed only a piece of bread with a single scoop of peanut butter or a tortilla with a scoop of cold refried beans.”

School officials told parents that they would provide proper medical care and treatment, yet most students “were denied medical treatment, despite requests, and/or immediately taken off prescription medications and told that ‘God would fix them,’” the lawsuits allege.

Agape said it provided quality education with fully accredited academics and a focus on each student achieving academic success. But the lawsuits say students were forced to teach themselves and found that their education was not accredited for the colleges they wanted to attend.

Last month, The Star reported that two organizations had revoked Agape’s accreditation — one amid intense pressure from former students and a political candidate — and another group that recognized the accreditation had removed it. The school remains accredited by another organization.

The lawsuits also allege that for many years prior to the plaintiffs’ arrival at Agape, there had been multiple incidents of physical, emotional and sexual abuse of students by staff members. Some of those acts resulted in criminal sexual abuse charges and convictions, the lawsuits say.

“Despite this knowledge, Defendant Agape failed to implement safety measures designed to protect its residents from such abuses,” the suits allege.

The lawsuits also note that a previous Agape student had been the victim of repeated sexual assaults that led to another student — who then became a staff member — being convicted of multiple charges of felony child molestation. Agape leaders knew about the abuse, according to the suit, but didn’t adequately investigate or report it or take measures to prevent the plaintiffs from being the victims of further incidents.

Instead of prevention, the lawsuits say, Agape “practiced a pattern of punishment designed to conceal and prevent the reporting of such incidents to the appropriate authorities and to prevent knowledge of such incidents being known by the public.”

Agape’s negligence, the lawsuits say, caused the plaintiffs “to suffer serious, permanent, and progressive injuries, medically diagnosable and significant emotional distress, mental anguish and injury, and damages for which he has and will continue to need medical and psychiatric care and treatment.”