Lawsuit accuses Iowa boarding school of culture of abuse

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Posted: Mar 15, 2016 3:08 PM
Lawsuit accuses Iowa boarding school of culture of abuse

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — 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.

Several students say they didn't receive necessary medical care in a timely fashion, and that rats and mice were a constant presence. The lawsuit includes 13 claims, including fraud and educational malpractice, and seeks unspecified damages.

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