Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School Closes, Students In Polygamous Community Now Home-Schooled

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BOUNTIFUL ELEMENTARY SECONDARY SCHOOL
Students at the Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School play an afternoon game of basketball on Monday, April 28, 2008 at the polygamist community of Bountiful near Creston, British Columbia. The community has two independent schools within a few hundred yards of each other. (AP Photo/Joe Sales) | CP

VANCOUVER - A school in Bountiful, B.C., with links to jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs has abruptly closed its doors, with most of its students now relying on home-schooling in a community that has long been accused of using classrooms to indoctrinate children rather than educate them.

Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School shut down without explanation in September, the province's Education Ministry confirms, and nearly all of its former students are being home-schooled. The school, which received provincial funding for some grade levels, had an enrolment of 265 students last year.

Bountiful is a small commune of about 1,000 people in southwestern B.C., not far from the U.S. border. Residents follow a fundamentalist form of Mormonism, which, unlike the mainstream Mormon church, condones polygamy as a tenet of the faith.

Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School was one of two schools in the community, which itself is split into two divided factions.

The school was controlled by the faction that remains connected to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, and its jailed leader Warren Jeffs.

The FLDS side of the community is considered more extreme and isolated than the faction led by Winston Blackmore, who split with the church a decade ago.

Blackmore's school, Mormon Hills School, remains open with an enrolment this year of 178 students, according to the Education Ministry. Unlike Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School, Mormon Hills receives the highest level of government funding available to an independent school and is certified to grant high school diplomas.

Education in the community came under scrutiny during a high-profile trial in late 2010 and early 2011 that examined Canada's polygamy law. The trial heard evidence of declining enrolment at both schools, particularly at higher grade levels. Statistics presented in court indicated few students finished Grade 12 and even fewer received high school diplomas.

The trial also heard testimony from former Bountiful residents, who recalled being taught religion for several hours each day at the FLDS-run school, where boys were told to treat girls as "dangerous snakes."

When reached by phone, the school's former principal, Guy Oler, declined to comment on the closure or how it might affect children in his community.

The Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School Society, which ran the school, informed the provincial government in September that it wouldn't be open this year, said Education Ministry spokesman Scott Sutherland.

He said the society didn't provide an explanation, nor was it required to do so. The ministry and the local school district immediately began meeting with Bountiful school administrators and parents to ensure they knew they were required to register the children elsewhere.

"It came as a bit of a surprise to the ministry," Sutherland said in an interview.

Sutherland said most of the students are now enrolled in a local home-schooling program known as Homelinks, which connects parents and children with certified teachers who work with families to craft an educational program for each student. Professional teachers evaluate students' work, but most of the instruction still occurs at home.

Several dozen children are technically registered at local schools, but nearly all of them are home-schooled. In those cases, it is entirely up to parents to teach and grade their children. They have access to resources, such as curriculum documents and computers, from the school, but are not required to use them.

Nine former Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School students are enrolled in a separate government-run online learning program, Sutherland said.

In all cases, students can obtain a high school diploma — known as a Dogwood diploma — if they take and pass provincial exams, but that is not required.

When asked whether the ministry is concerned about the quality of education the Bountiful students will receive at home, Sutherland didn't directly address the issue.

"Every complaint that has ever arisen regarding the schools (in Bountiful) has been followed up on," he said.

"The ministry is satisfied that these kids will continue to receive an education and they are registered in education programs."

The local school district's superintendent, Jeff Jones, said his staff are still working with parents as they transition into the district's various home-schooling options. There have been several community meetings, including one that Jones attended personally.

"Right now, we're experiencing opportunities to develop relationships, and I think that's worked very well," Jones said in an interview.

"The families, they seem to be very committed to working with our professionals. I would say, overall, I'm very pleased with the way the community is working with us."

The Homelinks program includes weekly activities designed to bring its home-schooled students together as a community. Jones said initially the Bountiful students will participate in their own activities, separate from other Homelinks students, but he hopes they will eventually be integrated.

Jones also preferred to steer clear of the controversy that hangs over Bountiful.

"In education, we have to come to learn the context of any community we're working with. In our school district, and we have a variety of different communities," he said.

"We welcome all students. Our mandate is to educate the students who come to us to be educated."

Bountiful has been the subject of numerous police investigation since the early 1990s amid allegations of polygamy, sexual abuse and human trafficking.

In 2009, community leaders Winston Blackmore and James Oler were each charged with one count of practising polygamy. Those charges were later thrown out after a judge ruled the B.C. government violated the men's rights.

The collapse of that prosecution prompted the government to launch a constitutional reference case, which ended last year with a judge upholding the anti-polygamy law as constitutional.

The RCMP currently have yet another investigation into Bountiful. A special prosecutor has been appointed to review any evidence the RCMP collects and consider charges that could include human trafficking, child exploitation and polygamy.

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