Sharpe vision

Fighting for children against abusive authorities

Issue: "Daniel of the year 2001," Dec. 22, 2001

You may remember Charlie Sharpe from the pages of WORLD last August. Bob Jones wrote the story about Heartland Academy, a Christian boarding school founded by Mr. Sharpe in northeast Missouri. Heartland works with about 200 students, most of whom come from problem backgrounds. For many, Heartland is the last stop before juvenile court-or something even worse. But amazingly, local authorities have relentlessly badgered Heartland over the last year.

It's true that sometimes things get tense between the students and their teachers and counselors. Sometimes they get a little more than tense. And based on a few such conflicts-or twisted rumors of such conflicts-the local sheriff and the local juvenile officers have accused Heartland of various forms of child abuse. Last summer, you'll remember, several students who had misbehaved were asked to shovel manure at the school's dairy farm-a form of discipline county authorities thought was abusive. Repeatedly in recent months, those authorities have tried to remove students from the school.

Then, on Oct. 30, 115 Heartland students were rounded up, loaded onto public school buses, and hustled away. County authorities phoned their parents, told them to come and get their children, and never to bring them back to Heartland. (All but 20 have returned anyway.)

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That got Charlie Sharpe's dander up. At 74, he's spent five decades honing his entrepreneurial drive. During the 1960s, he built Ozark National Life Insurance Co. of Kansas City into a commercial powerhouse, went into personal bankruptcy when he lost control of the company, and then rebuilt Ozark a second time while becoming a multimillionaire. It was late in that business career-just a dozen years ago-that Charlie Sharpe also got very serious with God. He had been a lay preacher in his youth, but after an early marriage ended in divorce, he had lived a pretty fast life for several decades. The 1990s, however, brought him to terms again with the claims of Christ on his life.

That confrontation also sensitized him to the profound needs of a growing number of people in his home county (just 40 miles west of the Mississippi River and Mark Twain's Hannibal, Mo.). Though rural, the area was producing way too many alcoholics and drug addicts. Charlie Sharpe wanted to help them. But in the process, what really grabbed his attention were the children of such needy people. So he determined to use his fortune to go right to the heart of all these urgent problems. Over the last half dozen years, he's poured perhaps $50 million of his own money into the effort.

For that, Charlie Sharpe has now been regularly smacked in the face by public authorities.

"What made me mad," Charlie told me a couple of weeks ago, "is that we have always taught our students to respect the law and the authorities. The kids were betrayed by the very people we'd taught them to trust." You don't have to take Charlie's word for this. A couple of Heartland students videotaped several hours' worth of the Oct. 30 "raid"-and the evidence on those tapes was so compelling that a federal judge said, on the record, that he had to turn his face away so that those in the courtroom wouldn't see his reaction. The same judge has now ordered the juvenile authorities to back off.

Charlie Sharpe wants more. He wants a clear signal sent throughout the United States that this sort of thing won't be tolerated. "I can afford to defend myself," he told me. "But most schools and faith-based organizations can't mount an expensive legal defense when local authorities do something like this." To that end, several of the local authorities will soon have to defend themselves against hefty civil suits from Heartland teachers, parents, and students who claim their civil rights were abridged in the recurring harassment. "I won't let it go until they come out here and ask the forgiveness of the kids they scared so badly," Charlie told me.

But the lawsuits are no petty or vengeful response from Charlie Sharpe. He's desperately concerned for his nation. "We've got less than 20 years-maybe just 10 years-to turn things around," he said. And he sees the state's monopolization of public services as a key to the disintegration of society. "Public schools are a huge part of our demise," he claimed. "We're training our kids to be heathen." And after watching the local social services folks move so relentlessly to put him out of business-just for trying to help desperately needy kids-he'd like to see most of those functions as well turned over to private organizations. "They couldn't do any worse," he said.

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