Boonville to discuss Kemper proposal

A company involved in the plan has faced abuse allegations.
Monday, April 11, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:34 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Honor is an important part of Mark Farrell’s life. As an alumnus of Kemper Military School in Boonville, he keeps a copy of the school’s honor code on a wall in his Columbia home.

“To anyone who has gone to Kemper, that’s something that follows you for your whole life,” said Farrell, who is secretary of the school’s alumni association.

So when Farrell said he trusts Randall and Russell Hinton, two men who are part of a proposal to buy the Kemper Military School property and reopen the school, he meant it.

“They’re men of honor, men of their word,” Farrell said. “And I don’t hand out my trust very easily.” Kemper Military School opened in 1844 and was the first military school west of the Mississippi. It closed in 2002, and the city of Boonville bought the property in April 2003. Although the property is dilapidated now, its future is a fresh topic of debate. Robert Lichfield and his Utah-based holding company, Golden Pond Investments Ltd., approached the city several months ago about buying the property. The business plan submitted to the city calls for an all-male residential school for grade levels seven through 12.

Lichfield’s company would own the land, and the Hintons would lease it from him and operate the school. Randall Hinton would serve as the new school’s director, and Russell Hinton would be the business manager. The Hinton brothers have both moved to Boonville to pursue the project.

The plan, however, is drawing criticism because of concerns about past abuse allegations at schools managed by Lichfield’s company, World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools. The Boonville Police Department has also expressed concerns about the type of students the proposed school would draw. A public meeting about the proposal will be held at 7 p.m. tonight at the Boonville City Offices. The Hintons will answer questions about their plans, but there will be no official decision made regarding the proposal.

Lichfield and the World Wide Association have come under scrutiny from state and federal officials because of child abuse accusations in several of the schools it runs for teenagers with behavioral problems. Randall Hinton has worked at several of the World Wide Association’s schools. Dundee Ranch, one of the association’s schools in Costa Rica, was closed after its students revolted in 2003. The school’s former director later reported instances of physical abuse, food deprivation and rape at the school.

In a 2003 article from the New York Times, a former staff member at a World Wide Association school in Montana said that students at the school were taken to a bridge at night, blindfolded, pushed into a river and told to find their way back to the school, which was meant to test the students physically and psychologically. The school is still open.

Lichfield could not be reached for comment, but has denied such allegations in the past, saying that any program that deals with troubled teens sees its share of complaints.

Randall Hinton said the school in Boonville would not be affiliated with the World Wide Association, though the business proposal notes that similar schools to the one they are proposing would “come under the classification of either behavior modification schools, residential treatment centers or specialty schools.” The plan compares the proposed school to two schools operated by the World Wide Association, including Tranquility Bay in Jamaica, where Randall Hinton once worked.

Steve Ortmann, now 16, spent 20 months at Tranquility Bay. His parents sent him there when he was 13 because of behavioral problems.

“Basically, the school was complete hell,” he said in an e-mail. “I hated every minute of it.”

Ortmann said many students at the school talked of suicide to escape it. In addition, students were not allowed to talk to anyone unless they advanced to Level Three in the program, which took four or five months to achieve, he said. The school’s staff carefully monitored and regulated students’ contact with their families, and Ortmann said he was limited to talking to his parents once a month for 45 minutes.

Punishments at Tranquility Bay were also brutal, Ortmann said. Students were sometimes forced to lie facedown without moving for long periods of time. When Ortmann refused, he said he was forced to exercise to the point of exhaustion.

“They made me do fitness until I was out of it,” he said. Ortmann said the program did help him, but not until after he left.

“While I was there, it didn’t do a thing for me,” he said in an e-mail. “That should definitely not be the way to help teens out.”

Randall Hinton said the school he intends to open in Boonville will not be one like those run by the World Wide Association.

“Our intention is to open it as Kemper Military School,” he said.

Based on meetings with the Hintons, Farrell said he thinks they are genuinely sincere about restoring the school and its history.

“They want it to reflect how it used to run, with the uniforms and the standard of honor,” Farrell said. “They want to gain as much information about Kemper’s past as they can.”

However, the Boonville Police Department has raised questions about Randall Hinton’s previous connections to the World Wide Association and his actions during that time after conducting a preliminary criminal background check at the request of city officials.

“It has been stated that the institution in Boonville would not be affiliated with WWASP or Mr. Lichfield, but the deposit check given to the city clearly has the signature of Robert B. Lichfield, so our assumption is there will be some connection to WWASP,” the Police Department wrote in a March 24 memo issued to city officials.

“After reviewing many documents and videotapes we were provided, it appears to us there are some concerns about the treatment given to children in these institutions,” the document states.

The memo also states that Randall Hinton is on videotape “freely admitting he used pepper spray on one student and more than once per day.” The department’s report said Randall Hinton does not appear to have a criminal record.

Randall Hinton said such disciplinary techniques would not be used in Boonville.

The Police Department requested that the city reject the proposal from Lichfield and the Hintons because of concerns that the school would draw students with disciplinary and behavioral problems that could put Boonville residents in danger.

“It is clear this would be a huge public safety issue. As we have stated, there would be many troubled teens at this campus, and some could even be violent offenders. It would be a public disaster if a student on this campus hurt one of our children,” the letter says.

Randall Hinton said he is not surprised by such worries. He said the school would be marketed as a military school, not as a facility specifically for troubled teens.

The business proposal from the Hintons states the school would be for “adolescents that need help in the areas of discipline, responsibility and leadership skills.” The school would help them “get back on track academically and become responsible for their own choices and actions to become a disciplined, responsible family member and future, well adjusted contributing members of society.”

The school would not enroll students who are drug-addicted, psychotic, suicidal and sexually or physically abusive, according to the proposal. Students who have difficulty following rules and being respectful, those with academic struggles or experiences with minor drug and alcohol experimentation would be admitted.

Farrell said he thinks the students that would attend the new school would be no different than the students who went to Kemper before it closed.

“Many of them were rebellious and not necessarily bad kids,” he said, noting that he thinks many lacked the parental guidance to help them stay disciplined.

In a statement issued to The Kansas City Star last week, the Friends of Kemper Trust Foundation expressed opposition to the sale, saying the proposal does not serve the best interests of Boonville. The group added that it does not see the proposal “as a solution to the city’s problem of what to do with the former Kemper campus, or a befitting end to the Kemper story.”

Despite the questions surrounding Lichfield’s and the Hintons’ connections with the World Wide Association and concerns from the Police Department, people such as Farrell are hopeful that their proposal will restore Kemper.

“It means everything to us,” Farrell said, noting that many alumni have already volunteered to help clean the school and teach Kemper’s traditions and history to new students. Farrell also said he has received numerous inquiries from Kemper alumni and others about sending their children to the new school.

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