New allegations in Agape lawsuits include sexual abuse, ‘pandemic’ of suicide attempts

New allegations in Agape lawsuits include sexual abuse, ‘pandemic’ of suicide attempts

Kansas City Star [Kansas City MO]

November 15, 2022

By Judy L. Thomas and Laura Bauer


New court filings reveal some of the most brutal allegations of abuse at Agape Boarding School so far, including one former student’s account that two staffers sexually assaulted him.

Those details were outlined in motions filed Monday in 19 civil lawsuits requesting that the Cedar County judge overseeing those cases allow attorneys to seek punitive damages. The new allegations cover a period from 2007 to 2021 with many — including the sexual assault claim — from the past three years.

Changes to Missouri law in 2020 require attorneys to file an amended petition if they are seeking punitive damages on behalf of their clients. The law also allows the filing of an amended petition if new information arises that was overlooked or unknown at the time the case started.

In a separate case, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office filed an injunction in September to close the school, saying current students’ safety was in jeopardy. The case has been tied up in court ever since.

The new motion in the civil lawsuits contains seven pages of detailed allegations that describe broken noses, attempted suicides that were a “pandemic among students,” and intense physical assaults that resulted in outside medical treatment.

A former student, identified as M.N., was at the school from 2017 to 2019 and alleged that a staff member punched him in the testicles and he “had to be taken to the hospital where he underwent an ultrasound, and it was determined that he suffered a traumatic groin injury.”

Some alleged the abuse began during their transport to the Christian school near Stockton, Missouri, or soon after their arrival. One said he was groped during his intake process, and others described excruciating physical restraints that left them with bruises and damaged nerves.

“These are aggravating circumstances that Plaintiff should be permitted to introduce to the jury at trial so they can decide if punitive damages are appropriate in this case,” the motion for leave said in the lawsuit regarding R.B., a student at Agape from 2007 to 2012. “Plaintiff has clearly carried his burden.”

That lawsuit is among the 19.

Robert Bucklin, 28, who is identified in the motion and lawsuit as R.B. but has gone public in the past year with his identity, declined to comment Tuesday. The motion describes him being “strangled” by a staff member with the cord of a hair trimmer until he nearly lost consciousness. He also alleges he attempted suicide 15 to 20 times during his nearly six years at the school and drank chemicals to do so.

Ryan Frazier, whose law firm is representing Bucklin and the other 18 former students, said Agape “misled parents to believe that it is a school with a heart, a place that can get rebellious boys back on track, with love and care.”

“However, many former students of Agape Boarding School tell a different story,” Frazier said. “These individuals were mentally and physically abused under the disguise of discipline, some reporting they experienced sexual abuse as well.”

The lawsuits, Frazier said, were filed to allow former students to “pursue justice for the trauma they endured and to give them an opportunity to have their voices heard.”

Agape attorney John Schultz said the school has provided more than 6,000 boys over three decades an opportunity to “get their life back on track and toward a bright future.”

“We are disappointed to learn of the sensational allegations that some of our former boys are making now …,” Schultz said in a comment Tuesday, which he also provided for an earlier story. “We have read many specific allegations that we know could not have happened given the 24/7 supervision that extends to the sleeping quarter, shower bays, classroom, dining hall and all outdoor activities.

“We intend to file a response, denying the allegations and look forward to a trial where evidence can be presented to refute these allegations.”

After M.N., who said he was punched in the testicles, returned home for a brief time in May 2018, he was transported back to the school. He said he was picked up in the middle of the night by Robert Graves and former dean of students Brent Jackson, the motion said. Graves, a former Agape student himself, is the son-in-law of the late Agape founder James Clemensen and until recently was a Cedar County Sheriff’s deputy.

The boy testified in a deposition that Graves and Jackson came into his room and woke him up. Parents often pay a transport company to pick up and deliver their children to boarding schools like Agape.

M.N. begged them not to take him back to Agape, the motion said. When the boy yelled for help, he said Jackson grabbed him, punched him in the stomach and then slammed him to the ground.

“Graves then put M.N. in handcuffs and dragged him outside to their car,” the motion said. “M.N. recalls uncontrollably vomiting in the car from the trauma.”

The former deputy was mentioned in the motion several times. One of those times was regarding an incident with a student identified as C.M. who within two weeks of arriving tried to commit suicide by hanging himself in the bathroom, according to the motion.

C.M. was at the school in 2017 and 2018.

Graves “grabbed C.M. by the collar and drug him across the floor into the intake room and told C.M. that if he ever tried to commit suicide again while at Agape, Graves would ‘put him in hell himself,’” the motion said.

The documents name numerous other Agape staff members, three of whom are among the five currently charged in Cedar County with physically abusing students. Those men — Seth Duncan, Agape medical coordinator Scott Dumar and Trent Hartman — all have pleaded not guilty and have court hearings on those felonies scheduled next month.

Duncan and Dumar, along with staffer Dan Goldsmith — a former corrections officer in Pennsylvania — and Bryan Clemensen, Agape director and son of its late founder, have been found by the state Department of Social Services to have abused or neglected students, according to the court motion. All except Duncan still work at the Christian boarding school while they appeal the findings.

A former student identified as W.H. attended the school from 2019 to 2020, according to the motion. He said he was physically restrained on multiple occasions and later sought treatment for injuries sustained in those incidents.

“Before and during the restraints initiated by Duncan, W.H. was in control, and not a threat of harm to himself or others,” the motion said. “Rather, W.H. testified that Duncan initiated the restraint, for example, because W.H. stopped doing workouts because he was having trouble breathing.”

The motion also describes another incident involving the former student and two other staff members.

“W.H. was also escorted alone from the shower bay to the gym where he was isolated, pinned down, and restrained by staff,” it said. “During the restraint, W.H. testified that his shorts were pulled to his knees and he (said) something was forced up his anus by the staff, causing him to pass out.”

In June 2021, The Star reported allegations by two former students who said they were gang raped by staff at Agape in 2009 and 2010. The two men were not at the school at the same time and did not know each other. Both said they were sexually assaulted by five staff members, with one staffer named in both alleged attacks. He still works at the school.

The recent sexual assault allegation by W.H. described a similar assault by two staffers. One of those two staffers who W.H. said attacked him also was identified in the 2010 gang rape allegation. The Star reached out to that staff member last year and received no response.

The new motion said Agape’s Ministry Staff handbook “expressly prohibits” any child abuse or neglect at any time. That includes physical abuse, physical neglect, sexual abuse, medical neglect, mental abuse, bizarre discipline and corporal punishment, the motion said. “

Agape admits that the only circumstances under which a student should be physically touched or restrained by staff is ‘where it is reasonably necessary to prevent an individual from physically harming himself or another individual,’” the filing said.

According to the motion, Goldsmith said that Agape staff began “physically restraining students with handcuffs based on the loose advice/recommendation of a Cedar County Sheriff’s deputy and the direction of Bryan Clemensen.” Goldsmith said that he keeps a pair of handcuffs at his house and “has personally handcuffed Agape students on more than one occasion and for continuous days.”

The motion said Goldsmith still works at Agape.

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