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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Christian School Can Sue Mo. Officials, Court Rules

(CN) - In a tense battle between a faith-based boarding school and Missouri, the 8th Circuit allowed the Heartland Christian Academy to pursue a lawsuit against 12 state officials who allegedly raided its campus and removed 115 students in 2001 as part of a conspiracy to harass and intimidate the school.

Heartland, six former students and 13 parents of former students claimed they were entitled to damages after a federal judge barred chief juvenile Officer Michael Waddle from removing any more children from the Christian boarding school in northeastern Missouri.

The state officials asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit based on qualified immunity, but the three-judge panel in St. Louis allowed the case to proceed.

The plaintiffs said Waddle was the ringleader of a conspiracy to harass and intimidate the school. He allegedly disliked the school because it wasn't licensed, he disagreed with its teachings and he believed Heartland hadn't acted "very Christ-like." Another chief juvenile officer, Cindy Ayers, allegedly thought the school was "growing too fast" and said Missouri should slow or "put a stop" to it.

On Oct. 30, 2001, a group of 30 juvenile authorities and armed officers removed 115 students from the boarding school, ostensibly for their own safety. The children were kept at local facilities until their parents came to get them - sometimes days after the raid, for parents in "far-flung locations," according to the ruling.

Heartland claimed that Waddle and Ayers lied to the juvenile court to get permission to remove the students, and then covered up their vendetta by feeding false reports of child abuse and neglect to the press and politicians.

In 2005, the 8th Circuit upheld the injunction against Waddle.

When the district court allowed the plaintiffs to sue for monetary damages, the officials argued that the court should have assessed their involvement individually, to determine if and to what extent they participated in the alleged conspiracy.

The 8th Circuit said it lacked jurisdiction to entertain such "I didn't do it!" defenses, but ruled that Heartland had a valid claim that the officials violated "clearly established" rights.

"We express no view as to the ultimate truth," Judge William Riley wrote. "But under the version of facts we must accept as true ... the officials knowingly worked with one another to effect the mass removal of [Heartland] students without court orders, with court orders based upon lies, or court orders devoid of probable cause. The officials deprived Heartland of notice and an opportunity to be heard, and then tried to cover up the officials' wrongdoing - with false, misleading, and incomplete statements."

These allegations, if true, would violate clearly established rights, the court ruled.

It refused to grant qualified immunity to the state officials and allowed the case to proceed.

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