The children shipped to Miracle Meadows boarding school usually arrived with a long list of behavioral problems.
Some had been diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar or oppositional defiant disorders that had frustrated schools and family members for years. Others had been given a choice by a judge: Miracle Meadows or jail.
So school administrators, in particular Susan Gayle Clark, who started the Salem, W.Va. school in 1988, ruled with “an iron fist.” But the strict discipline often crossed the line into abuse, investigators found.
Worse, court documents filed last week say, a “culture of silence and secrecy” covered up years of physical and sexual abuse.
Two former students of the shuttered school are suing, claiming staff members handcuffed them to beds, raped and beat them. School administrators knew about the abuse at the school, the lawsuit claims, but covered up the criminal acts to keep the school open, with tuition reportedly at $2,000 a month per student.
The lawsuit filed last week is the latest legal action against the school. Clark has pleaded guilty to child neglect, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Last year she was sentenced to six months in jail, then released on probation. A judge forbade her from leaving West Virginia because authorities fear she may try to start another school.
A former teacher, Tim Arrington, has been charged with child abuse by a guardian. He is accused of choking a handcuffed student until the boy lost consciousness, and told investigators that he had restrained other children several times before, according to the Gazette-Mail.
Arrington and Clark are both named in the lawsuit, along with the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Advent Home, another church-affiliated boarding school. A spokesperson for the church said it had no affiliation with the school.
In many ways, the children were the perfect victims, said Brian Kent, an attorney for the two former students who has spoken to other victims. Students at Miracle Meadows were at-risk youth with a history of disobedience, often hundreds of miles from home. Their families hoped a stern, Bible-based boarding school would turn their lives around. Complaints were expected.
“They would be sent there from all over the country,” Kent said. “You can go on YouTube and look at the videos. It looks like a great transformative place for kids. … But there’s more to the story. This was a corrupt, corrupt place.”
Students saw the quarantine rooms as a sign of discipline that often crossed the line.
For the most egregious acts, students were handcuffed or duct-taped naked inside a 10-by-4-foot room for weeks. They were let out for an hour a day, forbidden to interact with other students and had to go to the bathroom in a bucket.
They would be fed bread and fruit for one meal, rice and beans for another. Before they could get out, they had to memorize Bible verses — sometimes a whole chapter. If they got any of it wrong, quarantine was extended.
Some were handcuffed for so long that their wrists bled.
One of the former students was handcuffed to a misbehaving younger student who defecated on himself, according to the lawsuit. Both sat there for hours, covered in the younger child’s feces.
The suit says staff members abused children, but it also indicates that they didn’t do enough to keep younger children from being preyed upon by older students.
According to the Insurance Journal, the school has received 13 complaints about Miracle Meadows. Four of them allege sexual misconduct.
One said a 16-year-old pimped out his 10-year-old sister to other students for sex. They “paid” the 16-year-old in hygiene items and other things.
Four of the complaints involved Arrington, whose charges are still pending, according to the Insurance Journal.
Kingsley Whitsett, the corporate president of Miracle Meadows, told The Washington Post that the school had to use strong tactics because it took in children with a history of behavioral problems.
“We took students that were at-risk kids at other schools,” he told The Post. “We’re not a treatment facility, for sure. Our whole goal was to help them to mainstream back to the other schools — get them so that they’re doing well in school, have a purpose in life and can deal with authority.
“The school operated for 25 years and has helped many young people, including my own son.”
Whitsett, who is mostly tasked with liquidating the school’s assets and selling the property, said the allegations of systemic abuse were overblown.
The school did have quarantine rooms, for example, but quarantine was more like a timeout than solitary confinement, he said. One staff member, a former jail guard, brought handcuffs and said that cuffing children “was perfectly legal if you had a student out of control.”
Most of the problems were fixed when Clark or the board learned about it, he said. That’s what happened with the handcuffs, and with the buckets used as toilets. The school had successfully fought off three previous attempts to close it.
He defended the strict discipline, but said the company had fired Clark and Arrington when they were charged. Still, Whitsett said he was a character witness at Clark’s sentencing hearing.
“These kids are very conniving and they lie a lot,” he said. “So you have to understand that and work with them a little differently than you would with your average students … There were consequences, but none of that was meant to be like abusing kids or whatever.”
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services stormed into the school in 2014 and took 19 children into custody. All of them were between 10 and 17.
Prosecutors had looked into previous complaints, but substantiating the claims was hard because students came from other states, according to the Insurance Journal. Staff members were brought in on religious work visas, but if trouble arose, they’d quickly be sent home.
“Kids would be taken out of school. Kids would recant [the allegations],” Harrison County assistant prosecutor Patricia Dettori told the magazine. “And if a staff member was involved, they would disappear.”
Soon, most traces of the school will be gone, too. The property probably will be sold in a month, Whitsett said. A few YouTube testimonials remain, along with ratings on religious school informational websites.
The Miracle Meadows website is still up, but details about classes and tuition have been replaced with a short message:
“Because of all that’s happened the board has decided to dissolve the corporation and close the website.”
This post has been updated.