Agape Boarding School director Bryan Clemensen said he couldn’t get a new student to apply if his life “depended on it.”
“September is usually my biggest month of the year,” Clemensen said. “I usually get three applications a day in September. I haven’t gotten an application in 30 days. Not one.”
Meanwhile, Clemensen said he also had a “mass exodus” of staff at the school last week.
In an interview on Agape’s campus Wednesday, Sept. 28, Clemensen said the school has indeed phased out from operating as a boarding school facility and is going forward with group homes.
It’s a move that played a heavy hand in the AG office delaying a court hearing last week for their first petition to close down Agape. “The State will not allow Agape to escape accountability or continue to present an immediate health and safety concern to children through corporate shell games,” the AG’s motion said.
When questioned on the AG’s statement, Clemensen said that transitioning to group homes wasn’t a “shell game” — it was the result of the school’s crippling financial situation.
“It is one hundred percent financially driven,” Clemensen said. “To run the boarding school part of it, I have to have 70 students to break even.”
Agape Boarding School — an unlicensed troubled teen school facing criminal investigation, abuse allegations, and dozens of personal injury lawsuits from former students — hit a low enrollment of 61 students during the second week of June.
Clemensen said this summer, he was losing $40,000 a month.
When new parents research Agape online, they see the national press coverage and prominent social media activity about the school’s abuse allegations and criminal investigation.
Once they come across that information, they simply don’t pursue the school further.
It’s killed enrollment.
Clemensen said when enrollment hit 61, he knew things would have to change at the school — and so did the bank. But Agape originally started out as a group home during its creation, he said, and group homes had thus become his contingency plan when numbers maintained the downward trend.
“It was gonna be, at the end of August, either we were gonna shut everything down and everyone had to find new jobs — or we come up with a new plan,” Clemensen said. “It just so happens the bank had the same idea I had, because they came in and told me, ‘At the end of August, we’re done. We see the trend. We can’t loan you any more money to survive. We see the school is going out of business.’”
Clemensen said that he knew if the school could make it until their horse sale in mid-September, the school would survive. To survive, the ranch also had to sell all of their cows — a fact that put red color in his grimacing expression. “But now, financially, I was able to make it to the end of this month,” he said.
And while the group home plan had already been on Clemensen’s mind for around four months, the declining numbers of staff has also served a practical role in pushing the school in a different direction, he said.
The school had a mass exodus of staff last week. It began on Saturday, Sept. 24, and continued through Wednesday. In fact, a married couple was moving out of their home on the property Wednesday during the interview.
“They all thought we were just shutting down, so they went out and found new jobs,” Clemensen said.
He said that with the number of staff left at Agape, it wouldn’t be safe to operate at their prior facility level. But he has four staff families and one single staff member who liked his contingency plan of the group homes and agreed to try it out.
The school is using five two-story houses on the ranch’s property for the group homes.
“Financially, it is really a life saver. You have a set of parents and a single staff that are assigned to a house. So all I’m paying salary-wise is three people’s salary for about eight or nine students. The houses I already own. There’s no rent. Just electric and utilities,” Clemensen said.
Agape’s most expensive staff member was the chef, but Clemensen said he is no longer needed. That’s another hefty expense gone. The main facility will no longer regularly be utilized, either, saving on utilities.
However, despite the group home development, Clemensen noted there’s still the “problem” of not getting any new students to enroll.
After acknowledging the national focus on abuse allegations aimed at his school, Clemensen switched to the defensive for a moment to claim “nobody is fact-checking” the survivors who share abuse testimonies online, though some are indeed former students, he admitted.
Clemensen said he introduces himself as a child abuser to DSS workers who monitor the school because “it’s all a big joke.” He claimed the allegations of abuse are not true and that “it will all make sense” after court proceedings, in his opinion.
Later, when DSS workers were leaving the property, Clemensen bellowed out, “Aw come on, you’re not staying!?”
But the low staff morale seems to be no joke to Clemensen.
“We (had) 56 students here. I only have 44 beds in the five homes,” Clemensen said. “We sat right in this room. The staff family sat around. We had a draft, like an NFL Draft, and they went around and they picked from the list the students, in a draft format, the ones they wanted to live in their house, the ones they could help. That means at the end, I had 12 students that did not get picked up. I could not safely keep all of them. That was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made.”
MORE ABOUT AGAPE
The Missouri Attorney General's office filed a new petition Monday, Sept. 26, requesting that Agape be shut down and its students removed to safety.
In a Tuesday afternoon hearing, Judge Thomas Pyle set a preliminary hearing for Oct. 13 and 14 and ordered that DSS workers have 24-hour access to the school’s campus.
The new petition alleges the following reasons for why children should be removed from the school: current Agape students have alleged abuse and neglect by current Agape staff members; former Agape students have corroborated reports of abuse and neglect by current Agape staff members; Missouri Department of Social Services Children’s Division has found multiple current Agape staff members abused or neglected students; and multiple Agape employees have not completed mandatory criminal background checks.
The Kansas City Star has also interviewed more than 70 former Agape students and has reported on the case extensively.
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