Christian boarding school that abused dozens of kids settles lawsuits for $100 million
Miracle Meadows School, a Seventh-day Adventist school, was shut down in 2014
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After years of litigation, victims of a religious boarding school in West Virginia have settled their abuse cases for an astonishing $100 million. The latest settlement was finalized this month, and attorneys say the total amount may be a record for cases like this.
The cases involve Miracle Meadows School, a Seventh-day Adventist alternative school in rural Salem, WV that was open from 1987 to 2014.
That’s when the legal troubles began. The year-round school encouraged parents to send kids there if they were dishonest, defiant, or experiencing “spiritual disinterest.” And many parents did, in part because the staff members were said to have a “divine commission to live as examples of God’s high calling, inspiring the students to follow their lead in responsible Christian living.”
It all came crashing down in 2014 after a student “poisoned themselves with a cleaning agent… and then begged medical staff for help.” (The student may have done this on purpose in order to seek help from authorities.) A follow-up investigation of the school then uncovered even more damning stories.
Eventually, the school’s leader, Susan Gayle Clark, surrendered on charges of child neglect resulting in injury in addition to three other misdemeanors. A teacher/custodian there, Timothy Aaron Arrington, was also charged with choking a student who later became unconscious. That student was “handcuffed in his room when he awoke.”
The accusations against school leaders were horrific: In one instance, Arrington tightly handcuffed a 14-year-old student over suspicions of “sexual misconduct.” The child was kept overnight in a “quarantine room,” and his wrists were bloody the next day. Clark knew about incidents like this but did nothing to prevent the abuse. In fact, staffers were given handcuffs to use on kids as young as six.
In 2020, after a total of 29 former students made similar physical and sexual abuse allegations against Clark and the school, the two sides reached a $52 million settlement. Clark “pleaded guilty to child neglect, failure to report and obstruction of justice, and received a six-month jail sentence along with five years of probation.”
As important as the monetary amount was, it was still disturbing that the woman at the center of everything received a prison sentence that basically amounted to a slap on the wrist.
But that wasn’t the end of the legal issues.
In 2022, an additional 31 lawsuits were filed against Clark and the school. The plaintiffs were all former students who were not involved in the previous settlement but said they were also abused. Their allegations ranged from “education malpractice” to malnutrition and sexual abuse. They also said the school destroyed documents and installed windows in the quarantine rooms after they knew they were being investigated, suggesting a cover-up.
It was truly disturbing to hear what these plaintiffs said they went through in those isolation chambers:
The complaints refer to students being placed in so-called quarantine rooms, which are described as “small, windowless rooms without plumbing, heating or cooling, and the only light switch is located on the outside of the room and frequently shut off, leaving the minor child alone in the dark and cold while hungry and thirsty.”
The rooms were either 4×10 or 5×8, according to the complaints. The children were only given a bucket to use as a toilet, and they often weren’t given toilet paper. Their meals while in quarantine usually were bread and fruit or rice and beans.
“Children would also be required to memorize bible verses or write out a whole bible chapter,” the complaint states. “And if they got any part of it wrong, they would have to stay for a longer time in ‘quarantine.’”
Some of the children were placed in these quarantine rooms for weeks or months at a time, the complaints state.
It was torture in the name of Jesus. It’s just that simple. Can you even imagine what repercussions those poor victims had to deal with in the decades since they attended the Christian prison/school? In their lawsuits, many of the plaintiffs said they’d suffered lifelong trauma. They needed therapy and psychiatric help and still had to deal with mental anguish. It was just awful, awful stuff.
But now, according to their lawyers, those 31 plaintiffs have settled their cases this month, and the amount must be for over $48 million, bringing the total to over $100 million. Additional litigation, the lawyers added, is “being prepared.”
The attorneys noted that victims, in addition to the crimes already listed, were shackled to their beds, deprived of medical care, forced to perform manual labor, and physically beaten. There were also allegations that some kids ages 7-12 “contracted sexually transmitted diseases from staff members.”
“We actually had two clients who got pregnant by a staff member and were forced to have abortions,” [Attorney Guy] D’Andrea said. “We thought it couldn’t get any worse for these children. For some of them, it was.”
There were surely skeptics who wondered why these students, especially the second batch of them, waited so long to file their lawsuits. Was it because they saw the eye-popping settlement amount and decided they, too, wanted to cash in? That cynical belief would be wrong. In fact, West Virginia lawmakers passed a law in 2020 extending the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases. The previous law had only given victims until age 22 to file their claims. The new law gave them until age 36 or four years after the abuse was discovered (whichever came later). That sensible move opened the window for more victims to seek justice.
However, that law may now be in jeopardy too, because Miracle Meadows School was insured by a state-run agency, and that agency is now worried it won’t have enough money to deal with the abuse payouts.
Earlier this year, the director of the West Virginia Board of Risk and Insurance Management (BRIM), Melody Duke, told the Republican-dominated legislature that taxpayers were ultimately on the hook for $27 million of the previous $52 million settlement… and even that was too much.
“We have over 110 claims currently pending for individuals who have brought claims,” Duke said. ”It’s opened up from 20 to 36, allowing them to come back and file. And that was funding we do not have because when we collected premiums, that exposure was not there. The statute of limitations when we collected the premium back in those years, was able to end at 20.”
The school went out of business in 2014, so BRIM can’t go back and collect premiums, nor can the agency collect premiums from the other nonprofits since it is outside of the five-year range.
That was before the latest settlement raised the amount to over $100 million, and the state may have to pay around half of that. It’s unclear what the legislature plans to do to address the problem.
“It’s terrible what happened to those children,” [Senate Finance Committee Chair Eric] Tarr said. “There’s no money that can make that up for what happened to them. But we also have to take a look at the security of the state and the coffers of the state to be able to pay to operate.”
BRIM representatives declined to talk to West Virginia Public Broadcasting on their financial situation due to ongoing litigation.
The premiums are bound to shoot up for everyone because the religious school didn’t have proper oversight, something that is all too frequent when it comes to charter and private schools. One prosecutor said there had been complaints against Miracle Meadows School for years prior to 2014 but it was difficult to corroborate the allegations because out-of-state students were pulled from the school or recanted their statements. Many staffers were also from other countries and were simply sent back home if they were accused of wrongdoing. School leaders had any number of ways to sidestep responsibility while running the Christian torture chamber.
All of this is a reminder that the word “Christian” is not synonymous with virtue. Anyone who pretends otherwise may be ignoring very real problems. In the case of this Seventh-day Adventist school, religion was a cover story for abuse, and the list of victims grew longer because parents trusted a woman who assured them she was acting in (literal) good faith.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)
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