Controversial Reform School Will Close : Education: Pastor will shut strict religious school for wayward girls rather than comply with a court order to obtain a license.
Victory Christian Academy has decided to close its doors later this month rather than comply with a judge’s ruling last week granting the state a temporary restraining order to require the school to obtain a license or cease operation.
The school for wayward girls has operated since 1985 in a former FBI compound in rural Ramona, behind locked gates and surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire.
Pastor Mike Palmer, founder of the fundamentalist Baptist school for delinquent teen-agers, said Wednesday that he would not operate the school under state-mandated restrictions and will close May 28.
“Our church does not have the funds to fight the state, which has nothing but time and money,” Palmer said. “I cannot continue to operate the school under state regulations that give them the right to hire and fire our staff and dictate our programs.
“The hardest part is that we never had our day in court. The parents wanted a chance to give witness to the good that the Victory has done for their children.”
Palmer said some parents of the rebellious girls who have been sent to the church school “to get straight and to get religion” plan to file a class-action lawsuit against the state on the basis that they have been deprived of their civil rights by the closure.
Superior Court Judge James R. Milliken granted a temporary injunction requested by the state Department of Social Services on Friday, requiring the school to obtain a state license to operate or close its doors by 7 a.m. May 28.
Palmer said he was not involved in the parents’ planned legal action and that its outcome would have no effect on the future of the school. He said he has no plans to open a similar school in California.
Girls now at the school will be returned to their parents, Palmer said, “because there is little I can do to place them. There are very few such schools and they are all expensive, compared to what we charged at Victory.”
“It was their way or no way,” Palmer said of the state’s demand that the school be licensed. “I have said all along that I will not operate under their rules.”
Tim Rutherford, attorney for the school, asked Milliken to extend the time for closure past the scheduled June 1 graduation date, explaining that 18 of the teen-agers were scheduled to graduate from the school, invitations had been sent out and about 400 visitors were expected to attend the commencement. Milliken denied the request.
The judge ruled that Victory was an academic institution that used “behavior modification” on its students to bring them into line. As such, he said, the school fell within the jurisdiction of the state agency and was required to obtain a license in order to continue operating.
“This has been a rigged thing from the start,” Palmer said. “We could fight them in court and I think we could win, but the money just isn’t there. I can’t do miracles.
“I doubt that there is a school in the state that does not use behavior modification. I’m sure that they picked on us because we are small. We are not organized like the Catholics or the Mormon Church.”
A Department of Social Services spokeswoman said the state agency considered Victory Christian Academy “a board-and-care facility” that required licensing “for supervision of the treatment of the minor children there.”
On Feb. 14, state welfare officials and local law enforcement officers armed with a search warrant examined school records and interviewed some of the youngsters in the school to obtain evidence that the school was dispensing medicines and using disciplinary methods not permitted in unlicensed boarding homes.
A former student at the school told the state agency that she had been kept in a small room without light or human contact for more than a week, during which she was forced to listen to religious tapes, force-fed baby food and given cold showers until she agreed to follow school rules. She also said Victory staff members searched through the students’ belongings, confiscating private correspondence and personal items.
In a 1989 state case against Palmer, charging that he was operating a board-and-care facility without a license, the minister argued that he was operating a private boarding school similar to many church-supported private schools not required to be licensed.
The case was settled. Palmer pleaded no contest to charges of operating a community care facility without a license and was placed on two years’ probation.