Tri-City ghosts: School vouchers raise the possibility of diverting money into abusive faith communities

The November election may prove to be a pivotal moment for the school-choice movement. President Donald Trump selected Betsy DeVos, a longtime supporter of school vouchers, as his secretary of education. Eric Greitens, Missouri’s new governor, has promoted education savings accounts, which public school educators say are vouchers in disguise.

The enthusiasm for vouchers does not match the results. Studies in states with the most extensive programs indicate that vouchers are not helping students. The most recent study, in Ohio, found that students who used vouchers to attend private schools actually fared worse on statewide tests than students who stayed in public schools.

In addition to questionable academic outcomes, vouchers in some instances divert public money into private, religious schools. The risks in this are evident in the experiences of former students at a now-closed conservative Christian school in the Kansas City area, who spoke to The Pitch about the spiritual, physical and sexual abuse they suffered.

Even among Christian schools in Kansas City, Tri-City Christian School was known to be strict. Students received demerits for listening to rock music. Movie theaters were off-limits. The cheerleaders wore turtlenecks and skirts that fell to their shins.

Tim Sears, who graduated from Tri-City Christian School in 1987, was troubled as a teenager. Later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he would ask classmates to hit him. He was struggling to process abuse he experienced at home. His father beat his mother, who in turn beat him and his brothers. “I was a pretty screwed-up kid,” he says.

Sears, who is gay, was also experimenting sexually, a fact he kept hidden at home and at school.

Sears says his father, who worked at the post office and preached on Sundays at a storefront church, thought that he and his brothers would benefit from Tri-City’s emphasis on obedience. To Sears, though, the school’s leaders seemed more interested in enforcing rules than in meeting the students’ needs. During one interrogation in the school office, Sears admitted that he listened to rock music. He received 50 demerits and was told he would be expelled if he committed the sin again. 

“There was no counseling, no trying to understand what was going on in my life,” Sears says, “just a desire to punish and reprimand and fulfill the letter of the Tri-City law.”

Suzan Pearce, a classmate of Sears’, attended Tri-City through the seventh grade. Her mother worked in the church office, which reduced the tuition costs for her and her older sister.

Pearce says once she received 50 demerits for touching a boy. It was innocent. Pearce had alerted the classmate, who was wearing headphones, that his ride from school had arrived. “They instilled fear,” Pearce says of school leaders. 

For a time, Pearce’s life centered on Tri-City. In addition to attending the school, her family attended worship services at the church throughout the week. Looking back on the experience, Pearce likens it to being in a cult. “The only thing we didn’t do was drink the Kool-Aid,” she says.

Pearce’s family eventually left the school and the church. A defining incident was the time a gym teacher locked her sister and other students in the gymnasium until the teacher’s keys were found or someone confessed to taking them.

Like Sears, Bill (he asked that his last name be omitted) had an unstable home life. He grew up in a trailer park on U.S. Highway 40. His mother had left his father. He was bullied. “I was a very disturbed child,” Bill, now 47, says.

Bill says he may have racked up the most demerits of any student before he was finally expelled. A teacher punched him in the stomach when he was in the fourth grade. When he complained, another faculty member swatted him with a board until he said he’d lied about being punched.

Bill acknowledges there were times he misbehaved. He is also grateful for some of his teachers. (Bill generally supports giving families more educational choice.) But he has been haunted by the physical and verbal abuse he suffered at Tri-City. As an adult, he twice sought out a former principal — once on the phone, once at a class reunion — and challenged the principal on his use of corporal punishment.

“ ‘Well, did you deserve it?’ ” Bill says the principal responded at the face-to-face meeting.

Bill was stunned. “What kind of a fucking answer is that?” he says.

Mary, who attended Tri-City Christian School in the 1980s, says she was raped nearly every day at school by her sixth-grade teacher. Mary (not her real name) says her parents and school officials brushed her off when she tried to communicate the abuse. They failed to try to understand why she hated going to school, why she felt paralyzed with fear in the company of male teachers. When she ran away from home, a youth pastor told her parents to give her a spanking.

With nowhere to turn, Mary felt helpless. Through the ninth grade, she hoarded pills from her mother and made attempts to kill herself. “It never worked,” she says.

Founded in Raytown in the 1950s, Tri-City Baptist Church opened a Christian school in 1972. The church building, which at the time was near the former Blue Ridge Mall, doubled as the elementary school. In 1977, the church purchased an old school building in Blue Summit, a scruffy, unincorporated pocket of Jackson County between Kansas City and Independence, and opened a junior- and senior-high school.

In 1983, the church invited an ambitious young preacher named Carl Herbster to serve as senior pastor. Under Herbster’s leadership, the church developed a spacious campus along Interstate 70 in Independence, enabling it to consolidate its educational and worship activities in one location.

Herbster became a man to watch on the Christian right. He hosted a radio show on KMBZ 980 and made frequent trips to Jefferson City, where he pushed for vouchers but opposed restrictions on church-run day-care centers. Give us the money, but look away.

Herbster was a controversial figure, even within his own church. In the early 2000s, Tri-City members were shocked to learn that the church was $15 million in debt. In one instance, Herbster had signed a church loan for $1.6 million without a vote of the congregation. (He used the money to infuse cash into the American Association of Christian Schools, which he headed at the time.) The Missouri secretary of state’s office led an investigation of a church-run bank that resulted in Tri-City paying a $15,000 fine.

Herbster acknowledged the need to work to rebuild the trust of some members. But he was hardly contrite. “I’m going to be me and do what I think is the right thing to do,” he told The Kansas City Star in 2003.

Before he and his family left Tri-City in 2003, Preston Smith had investigated the church’s business affairs. He and another man disseminated the information to church members in an effort to bring attention to the debt and other matters.

Smith and his wife home-schooled their children. But looking back on that time, he recalls thinking it odd that church officials rejected government interference, while at the same time teachers at Tri-City Christian School were expected to sign up for welfare and food stamps to supplement their low salaries.

“I always thought that was contradictory,” Smith tells The Pitch.

On November 2, 2000, Mary Lee Sooter, a 56-year-old pastor’s wife, shot and killed her adult daughter, Jenny, before turning the gun on herself. Sooter could not live with the fact that her daughter, who was 24, had decided to move out and leave the church. 

The shooting occurred in the parsonage of the Eagle Heights Baptist Church, on Brighton Avenue, in Kansas City, Missouri. The shock of the crime reverberated at Tri-City. Eagle Heights was known as Tri-City North before becoming autonomous in 1979. Herbster’s predecessor had hired Tom Sooter, the pastor.

From its high perch in western Independence, Tri-City presented itself as a beacon of rectitude. But people associated with church regularly exhibited deviant behavior.

— In 2003, John Logan, a church deacon, was charged with sexually assaulting several children. He is serving a 25-year sentence in a Missouri state prison.

— In 2004, Dwight Free, the church’s former business manager, pleaded guilty to embezzling $1.2 million from the church

— In 2008, Ed Greene, who served as a youth pastor at Tri-City from 2001 to 2003, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a minor over a period of years while working at a church in suburban Chicago in the 1990s.

— In 2010, Mark Greenway pleaded guilty to a scheme in which he swindled two teenage sisters out of $1.2 million they had inherited. The Missouri Secretary of State’s Office alleged that Greenway met the women through a member of their church who was associated with the Herbster-led American Association of Christian Schools. Greenway, the state said, was involved in the association’s retirement program. 

Herbster’s star, meanwhile, dimmed as Tri-City shed members and the Christian right waned in influence. In 2011, he announced to the church that he was “transitioning out of the pastorate,” according to a post on Tri-City’s Facebook page. (Herbster declined to comment for this story.)

Herbster is today the interim pastor of Community Baptist Church in South Bend, Indiana. (He grew up in a nearby town.) Community Baptist Church operates a Christian school that participates in the Indiana Choice Scholarship program, a voucher program. As governor, Vice President Mike Pence pushed to expand eligibility in the voucher program, which is now among the largest in the country.

Tri-City Christian School was a feeder school to Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Herbster received a doctorate in education from the university, which lost its tax-exempt status in 1976 because of its ban on interracial dating — an edict that lasted until 2000.

In 2012, Bob Jones hired a Christian consulting group, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), to investigate the way it handled reports of sexual abuse. The investigation — which university officials halted at one point before allowing it continue — found that university officials tended to blame victims and discourage them from going to police. “We failed to uphold and honor our own core values,” the university’s president said upon the release of the report.

The GRACE report described a “showcase” mentality at Bob Jones. “The school was very much about performance,” one sexual assault victim told the investigators. “You must look showcase-perfect at all times.”

GRACE founder Boz Tchividjian tells The Pitch that a showcase mentality — “If you’re walking well with the Lord, you’re somebody the community can put up as a good witness for Jesus” — is typical of institutions that mishandle reports of abuse.

One of the problems with the showcase mentality, Tchividjian says, is that it reacts harshly to those who are not keeping up appearances. A student at a Christian school who is gay or has mental health issues or trouble at home, for instance, is seen as a troublemaker. “When that seeps out and the surrounding culture of that faith institution sees that, the immediate response is to either do what you can to put that kid back in line or you remove that person from the culture,” says Tchividjian, who is a grandson of the evangelist Billy Graham.

A distrust of civil authority and a low opinion of children are other characteristics of abusive or harmful faith communities, Tchividjian says. To the latter point, Tchividjian mentions the stories in the Gospels of the disciples growing annoyed when children were brought to Jesus, who welcomed them. “Children are not seen through the same lens as adults,” he says.

The former Tri-City students tell The Pitch that the school prized its image. Mary says Tri-City leaders wanted everything to look good. Those who fell out of line were more likely to feel punishment than grace. “At Tri-City, we had a bite-in collar around our necks,” she says.

Sears says the school operated on a caste system, which placed students whose families attended Tri-City Baptist Church on a higher rung. He believes that students with stable, caring parents who showed flexibility — maybe it’s OK to see a PG-rated movie — were less likely to feel traumatized by their experiences at school. “Tri-City would cover up the sins of families, and the families would cover up for Tri-City,” he says.

Sears was beginning high school when Herbster arrived. He recalls that, upon Herbster’s arrival, there seemed to be an effort to get rid of the “bad apples” in the church and at the school.

A showcase mentality was evident in a profile of Herbster that appeared in The Kansas City Star in 1993. Walking the hallways of Tri-City Christian School with reporter Joe Robertson, Herbster came upon a group of “well-scrubbed students” waiting for the bathroom “almost reverently in a razor-straight line.”

“I love these young people,” Herbster told Robertson. “They’re just so polite and respectful and well-behaved.”

A decade later, Robertson returned to the church to report on the practices that had driven away people like Preston Smith and attracted the attention of regulators: “Pastor on defensive with state, flock,” the April 17, 2003, headline read.

Children no longer form orderly queues at Tri-City Christian School. The school closed after the 2014-15 school year. Unable to shake its debt burden, the church sold its Independence campus to another congregation a few months later.

Downsized, Tri-City Baptist Church now rents a building in Blue Springs. The church offers day-care services and a preschool at the site.

Ron Webber, now the lead pastor at Tri-City, says he has heard some former students talk about spiritual abuse “with varying degrees of what that means.” He adds, “If it means that they were called upon to live in compliance with a set of standards that they agreed to when they entered a private school, then that’s not really spiritual abuse.”

But, he says, “I’ve known enough kids to know that probably some of them were hurt because they weren’t dealt with by individuals who focused on the heart as much as they focused on externalism.”

Sears, meanwhile, started a Facebook group, Tri-Citians Healing From Spiritual Abuse. Most of the members attended Tri-City Christian School in the 1980s or ’90s. Some of the memories are fond. But many contributors describe pain, fear and shame.

“I was treated very poorly by that school and it drove me away from organized religion completely,” one woman wrote.

“Most of my teachers loved me and were nice,” another wrote. The pastors and administrators were another story. “I grew up with a picture of God that he was mean, demanding and just ready for me to screw up so he could send me to hell,” she continued.

Sears has found some comfort from the group.

“It’s been helpful to share stories and find out you’re not alone in feeling traumatized by their bullshit,” he says.