Agents investigating abuse claims at Iowa boarding school

AP News
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Posted: Jan 29, 2016 4:41 PM

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Dozens of state and federal investigators are looking into allegations of child abuse at a privately-owned residential boarding school for troubled teens in southeastern Iowa, authorities said Friday.

Agents descended on the Midwest Academy campus in Keokuk to serve a search warrant on Thursday and Friday, seizing documents and interviewing students and employees. The investigators also served a second warrant at the related Midwest Treatment Center in nearby Montrose.

The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said the warrants were fully executed Friday and stemmed from a complaint alleging that a staff member of Midwest Academy sexually assaulted a resident. An academy employee has filed a lawsuit claiming she was fired last month for reporting the sexual abuse of a female student to authorities.

But the investigation appears to have grown. The Iowa Department of Human Services was also involved and had conducted child abuse assessments of 28 students, authorities said.

DCI officials did not release additional information about the alleged assault. No one had been arrested or charged as of Friday, but the DCI said agents from several teams "continue to work together to thoroughly investigate this very complex, large area." Several other agencies, including the county sheriff's office, were involved.

The FBI, meanwhile, opened a separate but related federal inquiry into Midwest Academy, which bills itself as a therapeutic boarding school for children 12 and up with behavioral and academic problems. Parents from all over the country pay tuition to voluntarily send their children to attend and live at the academy, which is located near where Iowa's border touches Illinois and Missouri. Iowa officials said no students were placed there by court order.

Authorities urged anyone who had information about wrongdoing at the academy to contact the FBI, where a spokeswoman declined comment.

DHS spokeswoman Amy McCoy said any founded abuse allegations would be shared with local prosecutors and could cause the agency to add the caretaker responsible to the state's child abuse registry.

A former employee, Cheyenne Jerred, alleges in a recent lawsuit that she became aware Nov. 28 that a female student at the school claimed she had been sexually assaulted and harassed by an employee. Jerred alleges that she encouraged the resident to report the abuse, and that Jerred also reported the case to DHS on Dec. 4.

Jerred claims that she was fired the next day and told by academy leaders "that she should not have made the report nor encouraged the resident to report the sexual abuse." She is seeking damages for wrongful discharge and whistleblower retaliation. Jerred's attorney, Curt Dial, said it's hard to say how her case fits into the investigation.

A woman who answered the phone at Midwest Academy said officials had no comment and hung up on a reporter. The president of the academy and the treatment center is listed as Benjamin Trane in state business filings, which show the academy was incorporated in 2003.

McCoy said neither the academy nor the treatment center is licensed by DHS.