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Heartland justice

Education | Federal court scolds juvenile officer for attack on Christian school

Issue: "Malaria: Kill or be killed," Oct. 29, 2005

On Oct. 30, 2001, juvenile officer Michael Waddle coordinated an invasion of Heartland Christian Academy near Newark, Mo., apprehending 115 students from the school's highly successful, tough-love recovery program. The maneuver, one motivated by unsubstantiated charges of physical abuse, drew national headlines and provoked a lawsuit from Heartland founder Charlie Sharpe.

Four years later, a federal court has shot down Mr. Waddle's state-supported defense with unanimity and vigor. The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a previous district court injunction from March 2004, calling the Heartland raid a violation of students' Fourth Amendment rights and limiting any future state intervention to cases of "serious physical harm" or "sexual abuse"-neither of which were ever suspected at Heartland.

What had raised Mr. Waddle's ire was Heartland's approach to punishment (see "When push comes to shovel," Aug. 11, 2001). Primarily distinct from state programs in its evangelical message of spiritual renewal, Heartland also employs rigid structure and discipline-including spanking. A long since discarded disciplinary measure requiring students to shovel manure at Mr. Sharpe's dairy farm didn't play well to national media in 2001, and it provided a public excuse for Mr. Waddle's campaign to see Heartland closed down.

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In his opinion, Judge Pasco Bowman dismissed Mr. Waddle's claim that he was only doing his job, writing that "if Waddle was in fact applying state law when he removed all boarding children from HCA . . . then state law would be ipso facto unconstitutional." Opportunity remains for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the likelihood of the high court overturning the twice upheld injunction, or even hearing the case, is slim.

"Pastor Charlie," as Mr. Sharpe is known around Heartland's campus, called the decision "a victory for the nation. It sets the stage to let family services know they can't come into a place where parents have placed their children and say, 'We're not going to allow this.'" Missouri's social services department declined to comment on how the ruling would affect its interaction with unlicensed institutions like Heartland.

Mr. Sharpe has poured millions of private dollars into his charter program, one that receives no payment for 60 percent of the troubled youth it serves. The insurance and dairy tycoon felt a responsibility to spend another sizable chunk in undertaking a legal fight most Christian schools would not be able to afford. The circuit court will rule in the coming months whether to uphold the district court's order that the state of Missouri pick up Heartland's legal tab-a bill fast approaching $1 million. The monetary liability hardly ends there, as parents plan civil suits that could reach into the millions.

Mr. Sharpe believes the money will come, but views such reimbursement as secondary to the merits of the case. "It's the kingdom of God against the kingdom of darkness," he told WORLD. "If someone doesn't take a stand for our children, what's going to become of our kids? When the state gets a child, very seldom are they ever helped."

Mr. Waddle, who resigned from his position in August due to unrelated issues, insisted in his appeal that the school raid was justified, calling Judge E. Richard Webber's injunction vague. For that, Judge Bowman issued a tongue lashing: "[W]e find Waddle's claims to be preposterous. . . . We will chalk this one up to an attempt at zealous advocacy on the part of counsel and not to a fundamental inability to read and comprehend."

Mr. Sharpe is hopeful such a stern dismissal will help exonerate Heartland from all wrongdoing in the public eye. Heartland has earned broad community respect for its aid to seemingly incorrigible youth. Of 14 seniors who graduated from the high school last year, 11 have advanced to college, and the school has maintained an enrollment of 270 students throughout the ordeal.

But some damage from the state raid four years ago remains irreversible: "When kids come here, many of them trust no one," Mr. Sharpe said. "We say, 'You can trust us. You can depend on us. We're here to love you, and help you, and protect you. No harm is going to come to you here.' When the state came in and took those kids, many said, 'See, you can't trust anybody.'"

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