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Home / Wire Stories / Across the Region: Lawsuit alleges ‘culture of abuse’ at boarding school
In this Feb. 11 photo, a U-Haul truck is parked outside the closed Midwest Academy in Keokuk, Iowa. Six former students have filed a lawsuit accusing the school of abusive practices. AP file photo: Daily Gate City, Cindy Iutzi

Across the Region: Lawsuit alleges ‘culture of abuse’ at boarding school

IOWA

Lawsuit alleges ‘culture of abuse’ at boarding school

Six former students have filed a lawsuit alleging that an Iowa boarding school kept them in isolation boxes for days, allowed sexual harassment and abuse, provided inadequate medical care and kept filthy conditions.

Several of the students’ parents also joined the lawsuit filed Monday against the now-closed Midwest Academy, in Keokuk, and its owner, Benjamin Trane. The parents allege the high-priced private school for troubled teens made false representations to persuade them to enroll their children and then failed to “provide appropriate and quality education, medical and therapeutic services.”

“My role here is to try to use the law to bring some fairness and justice to this horrible situation,” said one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, David Ferleger, of Pennsylvania. He announced the lawsuit on Tuesday in Keokuk, a Mississippi River community of about 11,000 residents that borders Illinois and Missouri.

Trane and the school are the subjects of a state and FBI investigation of wide-ranging alleged abuse, including that Trane sexually abused a female student and that the school kept students in prolonged detention in small, concrete isolation rooms. The school, which had operated without state oversight since 2003, abruptly closed after a law enforcement raid in late January, sending its nearly 100 students home and laying off 60 workers.

“Midwest Academy maintains a culture of punishment, confinement, coercion, physical confrontation and violence. It seeks to break the will of the vulnerable children entrusted to its care through a harsh and inflexible indoctrination system,” according to the lawsuit, which was first reported by the Des Moines Register.

George B. Jones, an attorney for Trane and Midwest Academy, said Tuesday that he needed to review the allegations before deciding whether to comment.

A male student alleges that he was sexually abused by other students in April 2015, an incident he reported to the Department of Human Services. The lawsuit contends that he was victimized again the next month after the academy “failed to separate the children involved from one another.”

The lawsuit accuses Trane of seeking to interfere with the abuse investigation by taking the boy out to lunch, offering to buy him books and telling him, “I can make sure you get things.” The department ruled in August that the abuse allegations were founded for “failure to provide proper supervision” and that Trane would be considered the perpetrator, according to the lawsuit. A department spokeswoman said child abuse findings are confidential, as are any appeals.

Trane also taught a class on body image for girls, who were required to fully or partly undress in the academy’s uniform room, look into mirrors and then come out and tell Trane about their body types, the lawsuit alleges. One female student says she was humiliated by that requirement.

Parents say they were not told how the brightly lit isolation rooms were routinely used as punishment. Students were required to sit on the cement floor for 19 hours in a specific posture before getting a chair, and had to spend a minimum of 24 hours in the rooms, which were often “filthy with urine and feces,” the lawsuit alleges. Students were fed a minimal diet while in the rooms that wasn’t close to the amount of calories they needed, it says.

 

NORTH DAKOTA

Supreme Court overturns 20-year-old DUI

The North Dakota Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a man who was tried last year on a 20-year-old drunken driving charge.

Jason Gale was arrested for drunken driving in 1995 in Grand Forks but wasn’t called to court until last July, when a jury found him guilty. Gale’s attorney, Scott Brand, argued to justices in December that the delay violated Gale’s right to a speedy trial.

“The government was clearly negligent. It’s 20 years, memories are going to fade and that was obvious at the trial,” Brand told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “The officer just memorized his report. He didn’t have any independent recollection as to what happened on that night.”

Grand Forks city prosecutor Kristi Pettit Venhuizen did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

The opinion released late Tuesday said justices can’t presume that a 20-year-old case was “diligently prosecuted when there is no evidence of any prosecution at all” and that two decades is an unprecedented amount of time for a DUI case to remain idle.

“I have never seen a case like this in my life or even so much heard of one,” Brand said. “When I was analyzing the case law on my end, I didn’t see a case that had been as long as this one.”

Venhuizen had argued that Gale made a concerted effort to avoid prosecution and that there was ample evidence to pursue the case. But Brand said Gale moved to Colorado shortly after the DUI arrest and was told by his previous lawyer that he would settle the case in Gale’s absence. Later, Gale was involved in separate court cases in two North Dakota counties and authorities failed to flag the outstanding warrant.

Venhuizen said the city sent Gale three notices two decades ago telling him the case was not settled. Gale said he wasn’t aware of the warrant until he discovered it while applying for a job earlier this year. A judge rejected his request to dismiss the case and it went to trial. Gale lost and was ordered to pay a $500 fine.

“This shows that justice may not be swift,” Brand said, “but it will come when the right case presents itself.”

 

WISCONSIN

Judge tosses cyber-bullying lawsuit

A Wisconsin judge has dismissed a lawsuit alleging school officials came down too hard on a group of Crivitz girls basketball players accused of cyber-bullying a teammate two years ago.

Oconto County Circuit Judge Michael T. Judge dismissed the suit on Friday.

According to court documents, three basketball players from Crivitz were kicked off the team in February 2014 after one of them took pictures of a teammate getting dressed.

The girl’s father, the school board president, complained to school officials and the girls were suspended for the rest of the basketball season.

The girls sued, saying the punishment was too severe. But the judge found the law gives schools “wide discretion in determining how best to maintain discipline and order.”

An attorney for the girls expects they will appeal.

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