St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 21, 2002
By Matthew Franck, Post-Dispatch
Nearly 20 years later, Cheryl Wright and Cindy Tindle Restivo remember the swats that never seemed to end, and with each stinging blow, the required reply of “Thank you, mama.”
Linda Morrison Carlyle was spared the paddle in the early 1980s but saw the grapefruit-size bruises on her classmates’ legs and backs.
Casie Compton’s duty seven years ago was to accompany a 13-year-old who was paddled regularly until she stopped crying for her mother.
They are, by their accounts, alumni of the same nightmare. And they are haunted not just by the strict discipline, but the control, and with it the loneliness of being trapped where letters home were censored, where friendships were cut off and where you couldn’t talk about your past, your struggles and your hurt.
Yet, many of their classmates tell it differently, recalling a loving ministry that saved them from the dangers of youth.
“I’m glad I went, I needed to get away from where I was,” said Erin Allen of Stockbridge, Ga. “It completely changed my life.”
Each is among the hundreds who have enrolled at Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy, near Poplar Bluff, Mo., and other teen reform homes run by Bob and Betty Wills and their family over the past 25 years.
Throughout its history, the ministry has been praised by satisfied families and condemned by former students and government officials. In 1986, abuse allegations led a judge to remove teens from reform schools operated by the Willses in Mississippi.
Today, Mountain Park operates in Missouri free of regulation, and many say their children were reclaimed by the school’s mix of Bible teachings and corporal punishment.
Supporters say the work of separating teens from a dangerous and even deadly lifestyle can’t always be pretty, and they dismiss critics as a loud but small minority who refused to accept the help the school offered them.
Many happy alumni maintain close ties with school administrators. They send them Christmas cards, wedding announcements and baby photos.
But for other former students, Mountain Park is a dark trench they can’t climb out of. They call themselves “survivors.” They huddle on Internet support groups by the dozens. They pay therapists to treat their stress. They bemoan the fact that no one – not even their loved ones – can seem to fully understand what the school took from them.
“They took away everything and anything that you once believed were important to you,” said Carrie Nutt, who attended from 1994 to 1995. In an interview, she said the most traumatizing thing is that the school took her freedom, “down to your ability to express your emotions – who you are and how you feel.”
Former students by the dozens share similar accounts of ridicule and excessive discipline. Their stories are consistent with one another and often are backed up by court documents and news reports chronicling more than two decades of the ministry.
Mountain Park administrators will not grant an interview or allow the news media to tour their school. But that doesn’t mean that the school’s operations are a mystery.
Critics and supporters alike agree on the school’s basic tactics, most of which are spelled out in the school’s literature.
Mountain Park’s stated goal, in a nutshell, is to separate teens from the ungodly.
The ministry dates to the 1970s, when the Willses operated the Bethesda Home for Girls and Redemption Ranch for Boys near Hattiesburg, Miss. Over the years, the reform schools have typically enrolled about 125 to 200 students at a time, about three-fourths of whom are girls.
Few teens go willingly to Mountain Park, unless they are tricked. Some are taken by force by bodyguards or transport services that take teens from their beds and drive them across the country in sedans with safety locks.
Carrie Nutt went reluctantly to Mountain Park in 1994, but she wasn’t bound and forced to the school. She hoped the place might bring peace to what had been a troubled adolescence.
She wanted an end to the screaming fights with parents over curfews, her marijuana use and sexual activity. She was weary of the counseling that went nowhere, and the dead-end treatment programs.
So when her parents had come to the end of their rope, when they had picked a boarding school with a tranquil name hundreds of miles from their home in Seattle, Nutt relented.
As she approached the school for the first time on an August morning, she even got a little excited, envisioning the serene intellectual setting of a New England college-prep school.
Today, she can recount each detail of her rude awakening.
She remembers the heavily perfumed lobby and dainty flowered wallpaper that didn’t match her image of a preppy boarding school.
She remembers seeing the word “Baptist” in the school’s name for the first time and wondering why her nonreligious parents would drop her off at a religious school.
She remembers being escorted downstairs to a dorm room where she asked girls in culottes and T-shirts lots of questions. Some refused to engage in conversation, others offered rehearsed takes on the sinful world outside, leaving little doubt about what life inside the school would be like.
When Nutt panicked and tried to leave, the other girls gained control of her with the methodical orchestration of bees in a hive.
She was told she had 60 seconds to say goodbye to her parents, which she used to scream and beg to go back home. As her parents walked away, she ran after them, before being restrained and brought inside.
Nutt said she was taken to the shower. She and other former students say they were observed by workers as they shed their teen fashions, trading pants for skirts, and halter tops for modest blouses. Nutt said she was criticized for her “worldly” underwear.
And with that, Nutt was introduced to Mountain Park’s time-tested formula for treating resistant teens. The school’s parent handbook outlines the basics.
All new students are placed on orientation, where they cannot be more than a few feet away from their student guide.
For the first few weeks, students can speak to virtually no one and their communication with family members is cut off. After three weeks, their parents can call, but even then only for 10 minutes every two weeks. Parents cannot visit the school for three months, and students cannot go home for a year.
Parents are warned to anticipate complaints and allegations of mistreatment and are provided a script to deal with such confrontations. If their children continue complaining, they are coached to hang up the phone.
Outgoing mail is screened; many former students say they also were prevented from complaining about their treatment.
Throughout the day, students follow a rigid schedule in which they rarely control even five minutes of their time.
Each day, students spend hours in religious instruction and are required to memorize three verses of the Bible, with a long-term goal of memorizing several dozen chapters by graduation.
For academics, the school uses a Bible-based curriculum called Schools of Tomorrow. Students study individually in cubicles at their own pace using workbooks and prepared tests. Many students said they never saw a teacher give a lecture.
Those who don’t go along with the routines are punished in a variety of ways. Some are given more chores, some are made to write out lines, and others are paddled.
And the handbook leaves little doubt of the myriad ways students can fall under condemnation. Even if students memorize every verse, complete every chore and sing every hymn, they can be punished for their “sullenness.”
Kathy Neville, whose son attends Mountain Park, said she knows the school’s methods may sound severe. But Neville, who does not share the school’s fundamentalist faith, said she had tried everything to turn around her son, including professional therapy.
Neville, of Grand Haven, Mich., is a lawyer and former social worker who says she has worked for years in jobs related to mental health.
She won’t discuss the specifics of her son’s condition but says he needs an extraordinarily rigid environment, with hard rules and predictable routines. He also needs to be isolated from negative peer pressure, which is something state-run juvenile programs were unable to provide.
“The kind of structure they have in their program is very consistent with good behavioral practice,” she said.
She and other parents also support the limits on communication. Neville said she knows her boy and is certain his correspondence is honest and candid. He recently was allowed to visit home and never uttered a bad word about the school, Neville said.
Some parents say the limits on mail and phone calls are rigid, but they ultimately help parents rebuild lines of communication that have been severed by years of rebellion.
“We had more communication with (our son) with letters once a week than we ever did before he went there,” said Debbie Amsden of Indiana. “Before, he wasn’t communicating at all.”
Amsden credits Mountain Park with turning her troubled, uncontrollable son into a loving, well-adjusted student at Purdue University.
Some former students of Mountain Park say they fought the school’s methods when they entered the school, but they recognize now that they needed the strict approach. Several question whether they would even be alive if there had been no Mountain Park.
“It wasn’t what I wanted, but it was what I needed,” said Naomi Nelson, who graduated this year.
Many graduates are puzzled when they hear criticisms of the school, wondering whether detractors – whom they knew as classmates – are even describing the same place.
But none of that surprises students like Nutt, who say that in a sense, there really were two Mountain Parks: one for those who found salvation in the program and one for those who suffered at the school’s fringes.
Troubling track record
Court documents and news reports describe a darker side of the ministry – one that dates back more than two decades.
Before Bob and Betty Wills founded Mountain Park in 1987, they were hit with a barrage of abuse allegations as operators of the Bethesda Home for Girls and Redemption Ranch for Boys near Hattiesburg, Miss.
Throughout much of the 1980s, the Willses came under fire from civil rights lawyer Morris Dees, whose clients included a pregnant 19-year-old who said she was paddled.
Cindy Tindle Restivo of Baton Rouge, La., is among the girls who left the Bethesda Home for Girls with the lawyer’s help and testified of abuse before a federal court. She told the Post-Dispatch that she once was paddled so hard that she passed out.
Wright, who attended Bethesda from 1983 to 1985, said in an interview that girls were called into “board parties,” where she and others were swatted as many as 50 times in one session.
Court testimony also included accounts of a girl who was paddled for slashing her wrists in an apparent suicide attempt.
Ultimately, the Willses left Mississippi after the state removed 117 teens from their schools. Today, several former students of the homes in Mississippi and Missouri say in interviews they were regularly paddled, and numerous women say they had complications with menstruation, presumably because of stress.
Students who left the school within the past few years say they believe the school has curtailed its use of the paddle. Still, the handbook asks parents to authorize swats, and Compton said paddling was the norm throughout her stay from 1994 to 1996.
But for most of the unhappy former students, the misery of the schools wasn’t physical but emotional. They say the school sought to defeat their individuality, eradicate their privacy and smother self-expression.
Carlyle attended Bethesda Home for Girls in 1983. She’s also a former Marine who is familiar with boot camp tactics. But Carlyle, of Wheaton, Mo., said that in the military – even with its strict discipline – she was able to hang on to her own identity.
“The military breaks you down and builds you back up,” Carlyle said in an interview. “This place does not build you back up.”
School supporters disagree, saying that students are restored to a fulfilling life in Christ.
Angela Collier, who attended Mountain Park from 1992 to 1994, say students who didn’t accept the school’s belief system were lost.
Collier, of Tulsa, Okla., recently launched a Web page for Mountain Park “survivors.” Through her efforts to close the school, she said she has met with more than 50 former students who say they were mistreated by the ministry. .
Several interviewed recall that girls who were deemed to “behave like a baby” were made to sit on a baby stool and wear a pacifier around their necks.
Many recent former students say that kind of ridicule continues today. Currently, the Willses’ daughter and son-in-law, Debby and Sam Gerhardt, operate Mountain Park. Recent students say Debby Gerhardt regularly holds “powwows,” in which she offers biting criticism of girls in front of others.
“The more you hide in the background, the less you have to endure,” Collier said.
Salvation at a cost
The driving force behind the punishments and ridicule, some former students say, was a constant pressure to accept Jesus and become saved before graduation.
And curiously, even some who criticize almost everything about Mountain Park say that in their quiet moments of reflection, they were, in fact, spiritually saved.
Carlyle is among those who said she found Jesus in her isolation and despair. But she kept that private.
“I didn’t want the Willses to take credit for saving me,” she said.
Supporters say the salvation is genuine for most of those leaving Mountain Park. More often than not, they line up at graduation in front of parents, pastors and civic leaders to testify about how Mountain Park reclaimed them from the ashes of their past.
And those praises are repeated by students and parents in issue after issue of the school’s newsletter.
But some former students like Carrie Nutt have praised the school profusely in the past as well. Not long after her parents left her at the school, she decided to fake it, to wear a smile, pretend she was saved and quietly mark her time until she could leave
At graduation, just like the others, she said what everyone wanted to hear about her rescued soul.
Nutt’s parents kept her in the school for three months after graduation. Seven years later, she said she hasn’t fully left the place.
Not when the nightmares of being stuck inside continue to invade her sleep. Not when remembering how to interact in the real world is a struggle. Not when she still isn’t completely sure where to invest her faith and trust.
“You come out of Mountain Park confused and lost,” she said, “because you don’t know anything anymore.”