February 18, 2005

Bethel Girls Academy temporarily closed

By Jenny Hunsperger
Hattiesburg American
reprinted in Clarion Ledger


PETAL A school for troubled teenagers was temporarily closed Thursday and its 44 students were released into state custody.

"For right now we're going to close the doors," said Bethel Girls Academy director Herman Fountain Jr. "We are planning on opening back up, but we've got to get everything taken care of first."

The closure came a day after 11 students fled from the facility.

Some girls said they had been physically and verbally abused by staff members, and one of the girls' mothers said she plans to press charges against Fountain for assaulting a minor.

"The contract was broken when he broke my daughter's wrist," said Miami resident Angela Roberts, whose daughter, Angenika McNeil, 16, was injured while at Bethel. "I want him prosecuted for what he did to my child. He hides behind the word 'restrain,' but that word means 'abuse' to him."

Fountain said McNeil's injury occurred when she punched a wall at the academy.

Wednesday's incident spawned an investigation by the state Department of Human Services, Department of Health, the attorney general's office and local law enforcement. But how the state agencies coordinate an investigation is unclear.

"We have statutory authority to inspect residential homes for children," said Liz Sharlot, spokeswoman for the Department of Health. "In addition, we respond to all complaints with regard to all facilities that we inspect."

Current state law mandates that residential facilities such as Bethel must receive a certificate from the Health Department.

But Fountain said further legislation is needed to protect everyone involved.

"A lot of people don't know what type of kids we're dealing with here. We're talking about drug addicts, alcoholics, runaways and some violent girls. They'll say anything and do anything to get out," Fountain said.

In May, 38 girls academy students were removed after several of them alleged abuse and the facility was briefly closed. Investigating agencies worked with Fountain to agree on a set of conditions that would allow the school to re-open. No charges were filed in connection with the May incident.

None of the agencies will release details of the decree, but former employee Nikki Rich, who quit her job as an academy drill instructor after Wednesday's incident, said the school took measures to thwart abuse.

"There are cameras there in the hallway, the dining facility, the kitchen and in Mr. Fountain's office," she said. "And DHS people came twice this month, but I wasn't working when they came."

Fountain said he is able to endure the allegations because he knows the truth.

"I mean, I've got four girls of my own and I treat the girls at the home as if they were my own," he said. "I wouldn't abuse my kids and I wouldn't abuse anyone else's kids."


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