February 10, 2005
Bethel Boys Academy changes
LUCEDALE, Miss. - The Bethel Boys Academy in Lucedale has changed its name; in part, says its organizer, to dissociate itself with past allegations of mistreatment of youths left in its care.
The Bethel home is now called Eagle Point Christian Academy, a reform school for troubled youths.
The school offered the same services as the Bethel, a facility that has been sued by families alleging child abuse. Complaints surfaced that students had been beaten, denied proper medical treatment and shocked with a cattle prod, and authorities had been investigating the boot-camp program, according to the lawsuits.
Academy director John Fountain said the recent name change also represents a new chapter in the school's effort to help struggling teenagers. It is part of a move to improve relations with the community and state officials.
"I'm just trying to put a new face on our school," he said.
Fountain said he does not tolerate abuse at the school, and is instituting changes to steer away from a rigid "boot-camp" approach. He wants to offer opportunities for vocational and technical training, and enter in sports competitions with other schools.
"We're just trying to do something positive. Along the way we might fail, we might not do everything exactly by the book, but we'll sure try," he said.
The name change is not unprecedented with the academy, which was founded by Fountain's father, Herman.
It was called the Bethel Home for Children in 1988 when it was raided by state welfare officials who removed 72 abused and neglected children. A judge shut it down in 1990 and Herman Fountain reopened it as the Bethel Boys Academy four years later.
"Life's a learning experience, I've learned a lot from the mistakes my father has made and still learning everyday and wanting to make a change," said John Fountain, who said he was not aware of the first name change.
Fountain called the abuse allegations "hog wash."
"Some of them are so far fetched, it's almost funny," he said.
George County authorities cleared the academy of abuse allegations last year, but parents continued to complain of visible signs of injury to their children.
Fort Smith, Ark. attorney Oscar Stilley, who is representing parents of former cadets suing the academy in federal court, said the case is heading to trial and at least two similar lawsuits are to come.
Fountain's attorney Trey Bobinger said even though the abuse allegations, which are two years old, are still the subject of a lawsuit, there are no pending legal issues with the state.
The school admits about 100 students, ages 11 to 17, whose stays range from eight to 12 months, Fountain said.