Inside the Christian Reform School From Hell
At Missouri’s Agapé school, a devout Baptist boarding facility for boys, students say they were subjected to isolation, restraints, and treatment that bordered on torture
W hen Andrew Breshears arrived at the Agapé Boarding School in 2018, he was a sandy-haired 12-year-old who weighed less than 100 pounds. He enjoyed watching movies, listening to Elvis, and playing soccer with his friends. “I was sheltered,” Breshears says. But he struggled at home. When he was told he couldn’t live with his mother after her stint in rehab, he threatened to kill himself, and another person from the household. His grandparents sent him to a mental hospital, then to Agapé.
At first glance, the facility for “at-risk and unmotivated boys” — a Baptist institution in Stockton, Missouri — wasn’t so terrible. Passing under the majestic cross affixed to its towering arched entryway, Breshears gazed over a beautiful campus. The foothills of the Ozarks sat in the distance. There were horses, a swimming pool, and a football team. It appeared to be a vast improvement over his previous digs.
But Breshears got a rude welcome. Right away, staff shaved his head, handed him an orange shirt and a pair of Wranglers, moved him into a dorm that looked like Marine barracks, and introduced him to a dizzying litany of rules. Chapel was daily. Church was on Wednesday and three times on Sunday. Hymns blared in the classrooms.
To keep order, Agapé instituted a military-like hierarchy, indicated by colored shirts that denoted ranks. The fastest way for a student to attain a coveted burgundy or red shirt, Breshears soon learned, was to embrace the Lord and help Brother Bryan — Bryan Clemensen, the school’s co-founder and eventual director and principal — enforce the rules. That meant calling out and even disciplining classmates for infractions like cursing, talking in line, refusing to pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, or talking about their pasts. It was easy to get in trouble for “stupid shit,” Breshears recalls.
There was a small room down a dark staircase with blue padded floors and holes punched in the wall. Staff called it the “intake” room. Students called it the “Padded Palace.”
Punishments allegedly ranged from calisthenics to “wall time,” where kids stood with their foreheads and noses touching the wall, except when sleeping, doing schoolwork, or eating. It could last for days on end. When more severe penalties were required, according to students, civil suits, and a search warrant filed later by state investigators, Agapé staffers would hold the boys facedown on the floor while pressing their elbows, knees, and fingers into students’ pressure points, a “pain compliance” method known as a “restraint.” Or worse. Former students say Clemensen, a paunchy middle-aged man with a buzz cut, a soft chin, and a stern manner, had a technique that he called “Jurassic Elbow” — which entailed slamming his elbow into the back of a student’s skull, face, ribs, or down between the shoulder blades. (Clemensen says this was a nickname the boys had for an elbow injury, and denies the abuse.) These punishments, former students say, were often administered in a small room down a dark staircase, in the basement of the church, with blue padded floors and holes punched in the wall. Staff called it the “intake” or “restraint” room. Students called it the “Padded Palace.”
For a time, Breshears stayed out of trouble. But he would soon come to suffer horrifying abuse, he says — experiences in line with what at least 18 former Agapé students have recently alleged in lawsuits. The state attorney general’s office claims that Agapé staff threw students into walls, pushed them to the ground, ordered them to perform 1,000 pushups, intentionally starved them, and forced them to sleep in handcuffs and wear them for as long as eight days. In civil suits, Agapé students describe being choked with rebar and electrical cords, pushed through drywall, having their noses broken, and hit in the testicles hard enough to cause “traumatic groin injury.” They say several boys attempted to hang themselves, in what they call a “pandemic among students.” Agapé, through its attorney, denies the allegations, and says that no student there has ever killed himself.
The Agapé case is just the latest scandal to emerge from the billion-dollar “troubled-teen industry,” a loosely regulated network of therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers, religious academies, and wilderness camps set up to help teenagers with drug addiction and behavioral problems. Many of these programs, which are estimated to serve as many as 200,000 kids at any one time, are allowed to operate with virtual impunity, thanks to federal inaction and permissive state laws. A 2007 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found thousands of abuse allegations between 1990 and 2007 — in 2005 alone, 33 states reported 1,619 staff members involved in incidents of abuse. The report, which also examined 10 cases where teenagers had died, noted that “there are currently no federal laws that define and regulate residential treatment programs.”
More than a decade later, legislators are finally making headway. In 2021, Paris Hilton, who has also been lobbying in Washington D.C., testified at a Utah Senate committee hearing about her own experience in a troubled-teen facility there, alleging that she was “verbally, mentally, and physically abused,” involuntarily drugged, and locked in isolation. Meanwhile, tales of abuse continue to emerge. Just last summer, former students at a pair of Wyoming ranches alleged in an NBC investigation that they had been forced to perform backbreaking manual labor and subjected to traumatic physical and emotional abuse. One student said staffers had branded him with a cross.
Still, administrators at many of these schools insist they are a force for good. When speaking with Rolling Stone, Clemensen denied the allegations against him and explained his approach to reform. “It’s about getting these kids to a place in their life where they have to look to God for help,” he says. “Where they stop looking to drugs, or their friends, and say to God, ‘I need your help to feel better.’ If you don’t save their souls, it ain’t going to stick.”
TOUGH-LOVE SCHOOLS CAN BE traced back to the 1950s, when a secular group called Synanon pioneered an approach to curing heroin addiction with isolation, humiliation, and sleep deprivation. Agapé, which according to its parent handbook costs $39,000 a year, is also influenced by Lester Roloff, a radio evangelist and pastor who founded schools for teenage girls in the late 1960s that relied on physical abuse and immersion in biblical teachings to reform them.
Missouri has been a particular hotbed for religious schools since 1982, when the state passed a law exempting faith-based residential child-care facilities from state oversight. Today, it’s home to at least 28 such institutions, though some estimates place the number at upward of 100, many of which are still operating under the radar.
In recent months, Clemensen has become the face of the controversy — a fearless leader doing God’s work to those fighting to save his school, a sadistic villain to those who aim to close it. Former students and their attorneys allege that for years Clemensen has been a toxic presence at the school, encouraging his staff to use violence to maintain order. It was Clemensen who introduced the practice of restraints in the early 2000s, says Ryan Frazier, attorney for Monsees and Mayer PC, which is representing 18 former students in suits against the school.
“He ran the school on fear,” says Colton Schrag, a former gang associate who attended the school twice between 2004 and 2010, and is not suing because the statute of limitations has expired. “I watched him choke, slam kids into the floor, and just basically beat the shit out of them. He smacked me in the face with his elbow for saying the f-word. And he encouraged that kind of crap from staff members.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Clemensen said that the abuse allegations are lies, and suggests they are inspired by the political ambitions of State Attorney General Eric Schmitt — who was elected to the U.S. Senate in November — and a small group of disgruntled former students “hoping for a big payday.” “What they are claiming would never be OK,” he says. “We’ve had 6,000 students and only a small percent are making these claims, and I could give you the names of many who thank me.” Rolling Stone contacted one of them, Matt Carlson, who says he spent the better part of a year at Agapé in the early 2000s. Carlson said he never witnessed abuse and credited the school with temporarily keeping him off meth and teaching him how to lay tile.
In response to a detailed list of follow-up questions, Clemensen, through Agapé’s attorney, says he “has never abused any boy in the history of Agapé,” and denied that restraints were ever used for punishment. Clemensen, who left the school from 2008 to 2018, says he has two master’s degrees, in education and counseling and psychology, and “would challenge the boys’ thinking processes, and he still does that to this day.”
Breshears and others paint a different picture. They claim Clemensen was on a power trip and seemed to enjoy brutalizing the kids in his charge. He is “a manipulator,” says Breshears. “He likes to get in people’s heads.”
Whatever the case, Clemensen has many allies where it perhaps counts the most: in the community. Cedar County, Missouri, where Agapé is located, is in the heart of the Bible Belt — and Clemensen, his stepfather, Jim, who died in October 2021, and his mother, Kathy, long ago convinced the locals they answer to a higher authority.
The way Bryan tells it, in the 1970s, Kathy was a single mom who’d found Jesus but still had a mischievous streak. James Clemensen was a California State Highway patrolman with a “death wish” so extreme the wives of his fellow troopers forbade their husbands from hanging out with him.
The couple met when Jim pulled Kathy over for drag racing a beat-up Ford Pinto around the East Bay. Within months, Jim was both saved and married, and Bryan had a new stepdad. Sick with a heart condition, Jim left the force in 1979 and moved Kathy, Bryan, and his siblings to Stockton, a sweltering agricultural city on the once-mighty San Joaquin River. Throughout the 1980s, Kathy and Jim fostered children whose parents were in jail. Bryan, by then in his twenties, was working in a state-funded group home. “Many of the kids my parents took in would be back six months later in worse shape,” Bryan says. “We felt they needed God in their lives.” The state, he says, “had no clue how to get to a kid’s heart.”
So they constructed wooden bunks on the second floor of their modest home, set up cubicles in the garage, and obtained work booklets produced by Accelerated Christian Education. The curriculum included traditional math and English. It also taught creationism and that women should be subservient to their husbands, while weaving biblical references into the materials. They called the school Agapé, meaning God’s love for man.
In 1991, Todd Bindley, then 13, moved in. He liked Metallica and Garbage Pail Kids cards, and had a tendency to cause trouble. His religious mother wasn’t having it. “She thought heavy metal was like witchcraft,” he says. One night, he got into an argument with his mom and stepdad that turned physical, and they accused him of being possessed. That was the last straw; they had him committed. Jim and Kathy appeared at the hospital a few weeks later. “They said that they were bringing me to my parents,” he says. Once in the car, Bindley says, they took him to their home.
Bindley remembers learning quickly that retribution for breaking the rules was swift and sometimes painful. One morning, he overheard one of the Clemensen daughters asking for help with a math problem, to which Bindley shot back a smartass remark. Moments later, Bindley says, Bryan yanked him backward, slamming his chair — and his head — into the concrete floor. (Clemensen denies this happened, but says he considers Bindley one of Agapé’s “top success stories.”)
Meanwhile, Agapé was growing. In 1992, the Clemensens announced to their troubled wards that they were moving to a promised land of sorts: an old Air Force base six miles outside of tiny Othello, Washington.
There, according to Bindley, he was put to work painting, roofing, and helping to dismantle a web of lead pipes covered in asbestos, which he was told to carry to the top of a hill and throw into a pit used to burn garbage. Within a few months, he says, three students ran away. He says one told local police that he had escaped from a “Nazi camp.”
In 1995, county officials shut them down after health inspectors found the school — which by then had 140 students and 25 staffers — had rotting food, holes in the walls large enough to allow rodents to enter, and exposed wiring. The site was littered with old barrels, wood piles, abandoned cars, and insulation containing asbestos. Seven boys tested positive for tuberculosis. The criminal division of the EPA investigated and charged Jim Clemensen for improperly disposing of hazardous material. “I have concerns about every inch of that place,” County Commissioner Sue Miller said.
It was time to go. The Clemensens sent 100 boys home, and moved the rest to base housing. Soon they’d be in a place where they were untouchable.
IN THE MONTHS AFTER HIS ARRIVAL, Breshears’ feelings about Agapé changed. “When I first got there, I just stayed on the low, trying to do my best, hoping to get out,” he says. “They promoted me — I was the youngest person to go red. And I did get saved.”
But then, Breshears made friends and began to reconsider his allegiances — particularly, he says, after he witnessed classmates getting restrained. To him, it seemed arbitrary and needlessly brutal. His outrage became open defiance. By 14, Breshears says, he was fully in staffers’ crosshairs.
He says he was once ordered to perform 4,500 pushups for cussing and told if “I didn’t get it done, I couldn’t eat my next meal.” (Though Breshears says he couldn’t do it, Agapé denies ever denying a student a meal.) He lost his red shirt and became familiar with the one place no student wanted to end up: “Brown Town.” That status, characterized by the brown shirt a student was forced to wear, according to lawsuits and depositions, came with extreme workouts, the loss of talking privileges, and a restricted meal plan that often consisted of a slice of bread and peanut butter, or a tortilla with a scoop of cold refried beans. And they would never tell you how long your stay in Brown Town will be, Breshears says.
The staff often singled out members of Brown Town for abuse, depositions filed by former Agapé students suggest. One student, identified only by his initials, describes being forced to run outside while a staffer tailed him in a four-wheeler with a stick attached to the front, threatening to ram anyone who wasn’t moving fast enough. Another describes a staffer holding a pocket knife to his throat. (Agapé denies any knowledge of these allegations.)
Such alleged retribution was not necessarily confined to Brown Town. One deposed student describes attempting to jump off a staircase at Agapé in a gesture of suicidal desperation — which prompted a staffer to grab him, throw him six feet across the floor, sit on his back, and bash his head into the floor multiple times, leaving him in a pile of snot and blood, while screaming, “Is this what you want?” (Agapé confirms restraining the student, but says it was “not a form of abuse but an attempt to prevent harm to the boy.”) Another former student said under oath that he was yanked out of bed and slammed to the floor for waking up late, kicked and punched in the balls by former dean of students Julio Sandoval, and kicked in the ribs and face in front of the rest of the school by Bryan Clemensen. (Agapé denies these allegations.)
Other students describe staffers encouraging classmates to fight one another, and cutting off communication with loved ones when they complained. “They would put you down,” says Breshears. “They would say, ‘You’re nothing. You’re dirtbags, you’re hoodlums. You’re never gonna make it out.’”
MANY OF THE ALLEGATIONS AGAINST Agapé staffers are easily found on podcasts and interviews on YouTube. Yet Agapé’s neighbors insist they never had any idea. Indeed, the version of the school students describe, community members say, is starkly different from the Agapé the town has come to know.
Stockton is located 130 miles south of Kansas City, a lazy drive down sunbaked roads lined with oak forests and rolling fields. Home to a population of 1,600, it has a tiny main square, the world’s largest processor of eastern black walnuts, and 21 churches.
Though the area is largely Baptist, Cedar County has a tradition of religious tolerance. On the wooded roads near Agapé, Amish men drive horse-drawn buggies; hundreds of members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints live on a nearby compound called “the Ranch.”
“I got picked up by the Cedar County Sheriff’s Department, and I tried to tell the guy, ‘They’re beating us,,’” says one former student. “And he said, ‘No, they’re not.’”
In 1996, the Clemensens purchased 40 acres just outside of town. The site, designed as a Christian camp, had cabins, a shower facility, a mess hall, and a small chapel. They moved their wards in and set them to work clearing the site and fixing the property. Locals says the Clemensens ingratiated themselves by offering tours, and hosting Boy Scout breakfasts and luncheons for the local Methodist group. They held a blood drive, organized a Fourth of July fireworks spectacular, and began holding an annual rodeo. They insisted everyone call them “Brother Jim” and “Ma’am,” and their son “Brother Bryan.”
They have law-enforcement ties, too. According to AG Schmitt’s office, the Cedar County Sheriff’s Department employs at least three people who used to work at Agapé. One of them is Robert Graves, a student turned staffer who joined as a sheriff’s deputy and married Kathy and Jim’s daughter, and is listed as a member of the board of an Agapé-affiliated church. Sandoval, Agapé’s dean of students, worked shifts at the county jail. He would later set up a transport business to collect teens, hiring off-duty deputies to help him.
Former students wonder if it’s because of this that authorities failed to act sooner. Schrag says he tried to escape around 2007, when he was 15. “I got picked up by the Cedar County Sheriff’s Department, and I tried to tell the guy, like, ‘They’re beating us, don’t take me back there,’” he says. “And he said, ‘No, they’re not.’ He cuffed me up and dropped me back off at Agapé. I tried to find a record of it, but there was none.” (The Cedar County Sheriff’s Department did not return calls seeking comment.)
Many Stockton residents consider Agapé a mark of honor. (“They do so much good for this town … and you cannot believe the difference they have made in these young men,” says Jackie Cargell, who has lived in the town for 57 years.) Several former staffers opened up similar schools nearby: There was the Legacy Academy Adventures, on a property owned by David Smock, Agapé’s longtime doctor who would later be accused of molesting students; there was the Master’s Ranch Christian Academy, which later opened two more campuses. None of these raised eyebrows — until former Agapé staffers Boyd and Stephanie Householder opened Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch. That’s where someone went too far.
LAST MARCH, BRESHEARS SAYS, he was on kitchen duty when a staffer said some chocolate milk was missing from the fridge, and accused Breshears and several other students of stealing it. They denied it. The argument grew heated, he says, and the staffer told the kids they were going to Brown Town. They were marched downstairs, where things escalated, until, Breshears alleges, he was lying facedown with a staffer sitting on his legs and two others digging their kneecaps into his pressure points.
The next morning, Breshears made a plan with the other students to start a “riot.” That evening, as Agapé’s 150 students and staffers were finishing up dinner, Breshears spotted a fellow conspirator flash a thumbs-up. On cue, at least two others started beating up an unsuspecting student to create a distraction. In the ensuing chaos, a third pulled the fire alarm. Breshears spotted a baseball bat poking out of an equipment bag. “I was just like, ‘Screw it,’” he says. He grabbed the bat, charged toward the front of the cafeteria, and shattered a plate-glass window. “The glass flew everywhere,” he says. Staffers grabbed Breshears and, he claims, threw him onto the glass. (Agapé denies this.) By the time he ended up in the Padded Palace, he recalls, “I was bleeding all over my head and hands.” So he scrawled the words “Fuck Agapé” on the wall using his own blood.
He’d hoped to get kicked out, which didn’t happen. But in July, his mother rewon custody and sprung him from Agapé. It was then he discovered an effort far more worthwhile than smashing windows: At least 18 other former students were filing lawsuits accusing the school and its staff of emotional, sexual, and physical abuse. The AG was on board.
It was a video secretly recorded at nearby Circle of Hope Ranch that finally moved state authorities to get involved. In March 2020, a former Agapé student named Joseph Askins stopped in to visit, and witnessed abuse that shocked him. Appalled, he used his phone to surreptitiously record Boyd Householder, who appeared to be ordering Circle of Hope students to physically assault one of their classmates. (“Knock her out!” he can be heard saying.) Askins reached out to Child Protective Services and then shared the video with the Householders’ estranged daughter, Amanda.
Amanda, then 29, says her parents kicked her out when she was 17. By the time Askins contacted her, she had been in therapy for years, and was deeply enmeshed in an online community of former Agapé and Circle of Hope “survivors.” She posted Askins’ video to TikTok, followed by a second post alleging her parents regularly beat her and had forced a student to eat until they threw up, then eat their own vomit. The posts went viral — even receiving a thumbs-up from Paris Hilton. They led to a front-page story in the Cedar County Republican. Five months later, authorities raided Circle of Hope, seizing evidence and removing 25 girls from the ranch. The Kansas City Star ran a series of exposés detailing shocking allegations — first about Circle of Hope, then Agapé. The Missouri AG launched a joint investigation with Cedar County authorities. Lawmakers held hearings and introduced a bill that would give the state some oversight.
For the first time, religious schools would be required to register with the state and undergo inspections; the attorney general would now have authority to close down facilities that posed a threat to students. On March 9, 2021, AG Schmitt announced 102 charges against the Householders, including rape and physical abuse. Their lawyer denies the allegations and says that “their innocence will prevail” in court.
In May 2021, the law requiring religious schools to register with the state passed. By then, Circle of Hope had shut down after the state removed dozens of its students. Closing Agapé wouldn’t be so easy, but throughout 2021 and 2022, the lawsuits began.
Recently, individuals associated with Agapé have been accused of a growing list of crimes. Earlier this year, Smock, the school’s longtime physician, was charged with 12 felony sexual-molestation crimes against those in his care. In August, Sandoval was charged with arranging the kidnapping of an emancipated teen in Fresno, California, on behalf of the boy’s estranged mother, and then having him driven, handcuffed, 27 hours to Agapé. (Both have pleaded not guilty.) In November, a man who is reportedly a former Agapé employee was charged with 215 counts of possession of child pornography. Nonetheless, the outcome of the civil suits is far from certain.
After a months-long investigation, the AG’s office recommended 65 charges against 22 staff members, accusing them of abusing 36 children. (The recommendations are not public, so the implicated staff members are unknown.) But under Missouri law, it was up to Cedar County prosecutor Ty Gaither to file charges. In September 2021, he charged five Agapé staff members with a total of 13 counts of third-degree assault, the lowest degree of felony. Bryan Clemensen was not among those charged. (As of publication, one defendant’s case was dismissed, three pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, and one is awaiting a hearing this month.) Gaither declined to comment, but told the Cedar County Republican that Agapé has the right to administer corporal punishment. “In Missouri, parents are allowed to discipline their children,” he said. “People who have care, custody, and control of those children have that right, as well. In other words, Grandmother can spank the children … as can Agapé.”
ON SEPT. 7, 2022, ATTORNEY GENERAL SCHMITT and the State Department of Social Services (DSS) filed to close Agapé. They noted that DSS had confirmed a case of child abuse and added the name of the Agapé staffer responsible to the Child Abuse and Neglect Central Registry, prohibiting him from working at a residential facility. A judge ordered the school closed — only to put the order on hold after Agapé fired the staffer in question.
The state has been fighting to close Agapé ever since. In addition to the fired staffer, DSS has substantiated findings of child abuse or neglect against Bryan Clemensen and two other Agapé employees, according to The Kansas City Star. So far Clemensen has kept his name out of the registry; he lost an appeal on Nov. 17, and filed for a judicial review in circuit court, which granted him a temporary restraining order keeping him off the list. It was renewed on Dec. 7. On Dec. 21, a judge issued a preliminary injunction that will keep him off the list until he receives a full trial (with testimony and subpoenaed witnesses) “or until further Order of this Court.” In the meantime, Clemensen is prevented from having physical contact with students, but can continue working at the school.
Meanwhile, Agapé has phased out the boarding school, instead running multiple group homes on its property, which detractors fear is a “shell game” aimed at shielding it from the new laws. Clemensen has said the move was necessary because negative publicity has caused enrollment to plummet, and it was not financially feasible to stay open.
Yet the delays have frustrated state lawmakers. “We are faced with the horrifying truth that a network of immoral individuals have engaged in what amounts to organized crime against children,” Rob Vescovo, the Republican speaker of the Missouri House, wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney Teresa Moore, urging her to employ the FBI to investigate.
Federal lawmakers say they plan to introduce legislation to curtail abuses in the industry. Advocates are watching the Agapé case, and suggest it illustrates why federal legislation is needed. But a Senate staffer helping to write the legislation cautions that in order to get a bill passed, they will likely have to tie compliance to funding, and are unlikely to mandate it.
Which means that even if Missouri does end up shutting down Agapé, the school could open in another state — just as the Clemensens did when they were driven out of Washington. South Carolina is a possibility; it still does not require religious schools to register with the state.
For many survivors of Agapé, that would be tough to accept. They say they’re still haunted by nightmares, hypervigilance, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. One former student reportedly mentioned Agapé in a suicide note. Bindley, who Clemensen calls “one of Agapé’s top success stories,” says the experience left him with lasting trauma, and “left a stain on my childhood growing up.”
Colton Schrag says he decided to speak after PTSD drove him into counseling. “I realized I can’t be the only former student to have these problems,” he says. “I can at least try to show others that you don’t have to keep it inside. You can start to heal.”
For his part, Breshears is grateful to be free. He is living in California with his mother, Jennifer, and attending a public high school. Jennifer says she knows it will take a while to reconnect, and she worries about the psychic scars left by the school — she’s already noticed that her son hates horses now. Though he is 16, he is a freshman; Agapé’s curriculum is often not compatible with local requirements. But he’s not complaining. “It’s good to be back with family,” he says. “I’m trying to aim for a decent life, you know what I’m saying? A decent life.”
Editor’s Note: This story, which appears in the January 2023 issue of Rolling Stone, has been updated to include additional details on court cases that had not been decided until after the print deadline.
On Jan. 11, 2023, Agapé Boarding School announced it will close its doors, a decision former director Bryan Clemensen says is due to a lack of financial resources. The school still faces a wave of lawsuits accusing administrators of abuse.