A former West Virginia boarding school for troubled youths was named in more than a dozen complaints of abuse and mistreatment over the past five years, one involving a student who allegedly volunteered a younger sibling to other residents for sex, according to an Associated Press review of state records.
A teacher at the private Miracle Meadows school in Salem was accused in August of choking a young resident unconscious and handcuffing other residents in their rooms to restrain them. The teacher and the school’s co-founder were arrested, the school was shut down and the Department of Health and Human Resources removed the school’s 19 students.
“This seems to be a rogue school,” said Harrison County assistant prosecutor Patricia Dettori.
Since 2009, the DHHR has received 15 formal complaints about West Virginia private schools, including 13 about Miracle Meadows. The DHHR released the complaints to the AP in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Four complaints against Miracle Meadows alleged sexual misconduct. One filed in April said a 16-year-old volunteered his 10-year-old sibling to other residents for sex in order to receive extra hygiene items and other goods from them. The complaint said the teenager made it past the security systems and night security personnel to the floor his sibling was on. The number of residents involved wasn’t known.
Four complaints made in June involved alleged incidents that resulted in the current criminal charges against founder Susan Gayle Clark and teacher Timothy Arrington.
Clark was charged with child neglect resulting in injury, failing to report incidents and obstructing a law enforcement officer during an investigation. Arrington was charged with multiple counts of child abuse.
Such complaints are typically forwarded to the local prosecutor. But substantiating such complaints at Miracle Meadows has been a problem over the years, in part because many students were from out of state.
“Kids would be taken out of school. Kids would recant (the allegations),” Dettori said. “And if a staff member was involved, they would disappear.”
Dettori said many of the Miracle Meadows staff members came into the United States from other countries on religious work visas and “it wasn’t hard for them to just up and leave.”
The latest complaints provided the breakthrough prosecutors were looking for.
“This time the stars all fell into line,” Dettori said. “This has been a mess. It took a long time for it to be substantiated. It’s finally been done right.”
The school, founded in 1988 and operated as a ministry of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, is now in the process of being sold.
A criminal complaint filed in August says Clark knew about the alleged mistreatment of students by Arrington on three occasions since November 2013. Police say Arrington had choked and handcuffed a male student, left another in handcuffs overnight, and locked a third in a room and forced him to strip to his underwear.
In addition, eight students removed from the school were found at or near Clark’s home in violation of a court order, the complaint said.
Clark and Arrington have yet to appear in court for preliminary hearings.
Clark declined to comment on her case. Arrington didn’t have a listed telephone number. Messages left for their attorney weren’t returned.
The Associated Press also reached out to former school employees and former students and their families about the school. Requests for comment weren’t returned.
The DHHR’s legal issues involving Miracle Meadows started two decades ago.
Acting on allegations of physical and emotion abuse of children at Miracle Meadows, the DHHR said in a 1994 lawsuit that the school should be required to obtain a license to operate a residential child care facility. A Harrison County Circuit Court ruled for the school, saying requiring such a license would be a function of the Legislature, not the court system.
In 2000, the state Supreme Court rejected DHHR’s attempt to force Miracle Meadows to produce students’ medical and school records for an investigation after two students alleged a staff member abused them. The court said that while DHHR had a duty to investigate abuse claims, it wasn’t entitled to records of students who weren’t the subject of the petition.
Private schools in West Virginia aren’t held to the same oversight standards as their public counterparts. They must simply report annual standardized test scores to the Department of Education in order to function as a school.
According to a report released in September by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, a lack of oversight of the nation’s charter schools has led to “too many cases of fraud and abuse, too little attention to equity, and no guarantee of academic innovation or excellence.”
The report suggests that charter schools be subject to the same process and transparency rules as traditional public schools.
Yet while leading state lawmakers are aware of what happened at Miracle Meadows, they don’t appear to have private schools on their regulatory radar.
“We have a tendency to let the private sector take care of the private sector,” said Don Perdue, D-Wayne, chair of the House health committee.