March 28th, 2012
10:43 PM ET

Ungodly Discipline: No state oversight at religious school

This week AC360° presents a three-part series investigating allegations of abuse at the Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch. The founder, Preacher Bob Larsson, asks new students to sign a document stating they understand the religious nature of the school and believe the bible to be the word of God. Because the Montana boarding school is a faith-based institution, the state has no authority to oversee or regulate it.

It’s an important factor to consider with former students and employees claiming abusive forms of punishment are common practice at the school. One former staff member told CNN’s Gary Tuchman, “... when I saw the kids they were wrenching and screaming because of the pain of what had happened.” Larsson believes Satan is behind that allegation and the others from more than a dozen people who told CNN they witnessed or experienced abuse.

Larsson, the owner for almost four decades, admits the school enforces a policy of “tough love.” House parent Ned Kent says he used pressure points on the children’s necks as a means to control their behavior. It’s a practice Pinehaven says is no longer permitted, but there is no government authority checking that claim. Teachers aren’t required to have certifications like instructors at public and private schools in Montana, and Pinehaven has free reign to employ anyone they choose regardless of qualifications or background.

In addition to the abuse allegations, at least one former student says he was raped by a peer. He began cutting himself as a way to cope with the pain. A former employee pleaded guilty to raping two students and subsequently went to prison. Larsson acknowledges past troubles, but he doesn’t welcome any changes to the law preventing state oversight of his school.

The Ungodly Discipline investigation continues tonight on AC360° at 8 and 10 p.m. ET.

Watch the first report in the series:

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Filed under: Ungodly Discipline
soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Donald Webb

    Never underestimate the actions of stupid people. Sadly, it's the kids who will suffer, and eventually turn into angry, vindictive adults.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  2. Mark Russell

    People who send their children to religous schools are abusive, and should lose all parental rights.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  3. Brett

    Again, it comes to light that the facade of "religion" is overshadowing physical and sexual abuse of children. It's pathetic what religion has become, and truthfully always has been. Disgusting, despicable and deplorable. "School", how can you learn ANYTHING in an institution like this except propaganda, hate and distain for the outside world from a "school" like this? Sounds to me more like an asylum or cult to me. These children have no chance to live normal lives after being forced into situations like this. This makes me physically ill to think about. Shut it down, arrest the cult leaders and get the kids into counseling services that have NO religious backgrounds.

    March 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  4. Mattand

    For everyone screaming about how we need religion* in public schools, here you go. No, not all Christians are like this, etc.etc., but if there had been outside oversight of this nutjob, these kids wouldn't have been harmed.

    So sick of people equating religion with morality.

    *Let's be honest: when people say "religion", they mean "christianity".

    March 30, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  5. Austin Beskacek

    Pinehaven is a total mess and needs to be destroyed I go to high school no child needs to be painfully abused for doing something a school where children need to go to learn. This school if u can even call them a school needs to understand child are human being not divine angels of christ or something. If u have a problem with come find me pinehaven il be wait for you.

    March 30, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  6. Mike

    I love that it's a Children's RANCH. Are they cattle?!


    March 30, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  7. Jeff

    Of course it is a Christian school, just because you don't like their behavior doesn't mean that they are not Christians. Every time Christians do something crazy, other Christians try to claim, "well, they are not TRUE Christians", whatever the Hell that means. Face it, Christians are nutjobs, and they are a cult. Just because it is a popular cult in the United States does not make it any better than all the other crazy cults. ALL religions are nuts and teach people to believe in fairy tales, magic, spells to say over food, to cure disease, etc. Christians are NUTS!

    March 30, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  8. Frank

    What do you mean ungodly punishment? The bible very specifically tells you to beat children.
    Below is a VERY short list of what the bible has to say about beating children. If you don't like
    what it says, maybe it's time to reevaluate what you believe rather than just ignoring it or trying to
    reinterpret what it plainly states.

    Proverbs 13:24
    Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.

    Hebrews 12:11
    For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

    Proverbs 23:13-15
    Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol. My son, if your heart is wise, my heart too will be glad.

    Proverbs 22:15
    Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.

    Proverbs 29:15
    The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  9. Sam

    That is not what is christianity is about. These people are not real christians, and they should be prosecuted and take responsibility for their actions. Jesus would NEVER approve their actions, I would like to know what kind of Bible these people are reading because my Bible condemns such actions.

    March 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  10. jason

    I'm a pastor, and a Christian, and this is not what Christianity is all about. It is disgusting! If nothing else, the police should step in to look at the criminal accusations. And, who would send their kids to this place? Crazy!

    March 30, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Pat

      You ask who would send their child to Pinehaven? When the interviews were over, Bob Larsson asked the reporter if he had a troubled child, would he feel comfortable sending him to Pinehaven...and the reporter did not hesitate in answering YES.

      April 4, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  11. Jim Bob

    How could this possibly surprise anyone?!?

    March 30, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  12. JPX

    What, children being harmed at a "Christian" school? Gee, what a surprise. There is nothing more frightening than religious people. I wouldn't let my kid near them. What parent would ever elect to end their kid to a religious institution? You might as well sign the kid up for torture.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  13. Jones

    A school is an institution, not a person, and therefore there is no such thing as a Christian school. The term "Christian school" is used to describe schools that teach the Bible. My parents sent me to one of those and there was no stuff going on like that in the story above. It was a safe, productive learning environment with no drugs, sex or violence. I highly recommend a Bible teaching school to any parent out there, but don't assume that a school is a good one just because it has Christian in the name. The worst form of punishment I endured at my school was a spanking, which I fully deserved (I lied to the teacher). Thanks, mom and dad, for sending me to a school that taught me far more important things that just the three Rs.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  14. Carol

    I often wondered how biased of a report I was watching when I would watch news reporting such as this. Now I know! Our church has sent countless volunteers to this ranch for many summers. They stay for a week on site and help with construction, painting, food preparation, etc. There are scores of other churches that do the same thing week after week throughout the year. Hundred of volunteers go to PineHaven and work and live with the workers and kids there for extended amounts of time. It's not just one short window of time where the ranch would be able to fake how things are really run. We have NEVER heard a bad comment from any of the volunteers on how discipline, behavior, etc. is administered. If that was going on, these HUNDREDS of volunteers would have seen it and reported it. Rather, we hear how wonderful a place it is for troubled kids. Many kids sent to PineHaven have the choice between there and the Department of Corrections. Does that tell you the type of person that many of the PineHaven kids are like? Others are kids who come from a horrible home and have behavioral issues due to that. I applaud PineHaven for taking on a task that most would never attempt to do. CNN's reporting is BIASED and sickening. I used to think you were the best alternative between the ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative news channels. I now know better. CNN is off my list.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • Katie

      Carol, the volunteers represent interest and money for the ranch. Even in their policies and procedures the protocol is to "put your best foot forward" "don't show the places that have a mess" "we keep our problems in the family"...The staff is very aware when and when NOT to show their true sides. And also, there are good staff there...or there were a long time ago...as far as I know, they are all the same people that left (including my parents, former houseparents). And I also know of BIG TIME church supporters that WITHDREW their financial support because of abuse allegations and Pinehaven leadership's (Bob, Andy, everyone Larsson) unbending unwillingness to form an independent board. Not even state oversight...they won't let any independent board be overseeing the operations and the problems that crop up at Pinehaven. It's really shady, scary and the Larsson clan...the whole lot of them need to be removed. Basically, if Pinehaven is going to be restored or salvaged anyone associated with it in the past needs to be removed.

      April 4, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  15. Craig

    If it is a "school" don't the employees have the same obligations to report suspected abuse that any "school teacher" would have? Or does Montana not believe in that sort of foolishness? This sounds, at least on the surface, as nothing more than an abuse factory, owned by a power-hungry little man who only feels important by knocking down others. The state must have some authority somewhere to deal with this. How about considering it a health hazard?

    March 30, 2012 at 3:57 am |
  16. Mike in So Cal

    Gary, I am wondering if any Illiniois state tax money has followed these 29 children that have been shipped off to Montana to a religious school via an Illinois Truant Officer ?

    March 30, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  17. jonny burbacker

    Spare the rod and spoil the child, and numerous other examples are in the bible outwardly supporting the notion that one must beat a child into submission of ones own will and ideology lest they be spoiling them and letting them off easy, free to make up their own mind(which is of course contrary to the belief system. However, In terms of whether this is a christian organization, I say it is, because what they do is fully supported by their own religious texts and unfortunetly protected in this country. The answer is as always research what you get your kids involved with if you don't want them tortured by your beliefs.

    As to why 85% of this country subscribes to such barbaric beliefs can only be summed up to the fact that no one even knows what the bible actually says.

    March 29, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  18. Patricia

    Pinehaven is a Joke!!! My Brother went there about ten years ago and he also has nightmare stories about that place!! the things that were happening there was all abuse!! They put on a show when they are in front in cameras or when they have visiters!!! they have benn hiding the truth for way too long and it about time someone listens and the children that are sent there and just because they have issues does not make then liers!! Pinehaven needs to be shut down!!

    March 29, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
  19. Paul

    First of all, it was using "pressure points" not choking. Second of all, it's Satan behind the complaints. Sounds perfectly rational if you're a Christian.

    March 29, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  20. Deb Keller

    Come on, people....do you really always believe what you see on TV??? It disheartens me that CNN chose to only focus on the allegations and negative comments made by various people in regard to Pinehaven. CNN is being the Judge and Jury without bothering to speak to anyone who has benefited from Pinehaven. Do you really believe everything that people tell you? The reason many of these children are sent there is because of a terrible home life and I can tell you that many of them are in a far better atmosphere at Pinehaven than the home they were taken out of. So let's not be so quick to pass judgement on something that hasn't been given a "fair trial". The comment about the Truant Officer from Richland County being a "pipeline" to Pinehaven was very uncalled for. I think a follow-story needs to be done on the positive side of Pinehaven; why don't you talk to some of the kids who were sent there and see how it has changed their lives for the better?? That's what I would like to challenge CNN to do. Are you up to the challenge?

    March 29, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Pat

      Thank you for shining a light of truth about Pinehaven. My grandson was there for several years, graduating last June. He is a fine, confident, caring, respectful young man who continues contact with the Pinehaven staff. He realizes how different his life would be if he had not gone to Pinehaven. The naysayers have tried to get him to join their chorus of attack on Pinehaven, and he will have no part of it.

      The reason children are sent to Pinehaven is because they are 'out of control'. If their parents can't control them, does that tell you they might be violent at times and need a strong hand to protect themselves and others? These are not all little kids...many are as big or bigger than their house parents.

      I have seen first-hand the home-life at Pinehaven. The kids are happy, friendly, and respectful. They learn valuable life skills, and maybe for the first time, they learn there is a God who loves them, who forgives them when they mess up, and who has a plan for their lives.

      At the end of his interviews and investigation, Gary Tuchman was asked if he had a troubled child, would he feel comfortable sending him to Pinehaven. He did not hesitate to answer...YES. It's very sad he chose to highlight mostly negative issues in what seemed to be a concerted effort to destroy a wonderful refuge for children. Pinehaven has helped hundreds of children and their families, and the handful of negative comments he showed absolutely do not tell the true story of Pinehaven.

      April 4, 2012 at 10:00 am |
      • Pat

        My thanks was to Deb (NOT CNN) for shining the light of truth about Pinehaven.

        April 4, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  21. Umar

    Separation of Church and State when it suits the Church.
    But I thought America was a Christian country whose forefathers were all Christians believing in a Christian Government.

    March 29, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  22. Marla

    I think that you should check into how much money the local jurisdiction in IL is paying Pinehurst to take these children that the truant officer has sent to that facility. Also, what kind of "kick back" is the truant officer getting for directing all of these children to this facility, that is run by his "mentor" or "father figure". That angle of the story might allow the state AG to get involved in situation.

    March 29, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  23. ian

    Faced with the threat of oversight, his answer is, "it would be unconstitutional" and "send your kids somewhere else." Yeah, he knows nothing about what's going on.

    March 29, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Matt

      That is because his God is the ONLY true God and everyone that doesn't agree with him is influenced by Satan! Even other "christians" – LOL! Sick, Sad and shame on you Montana for not doing anything!

      March 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  24. clarke

    Shame on the parents for even sending their children to this place. If this is what being a Christian is, than no thank you. This is a place for this headmaster to make money and brainwash children into being followers of another Jones town.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Jones

      "If this is what being a Christian is, than no thank you."

      Same goes for me. However, I assure you that this is not what Christianity is. The term Christian has been applied to so many things and institutions, and has been badly misrepresented. With so many counterfeits, there is only one sure way to learn what Christianity is. Read the first four gospels of the New Testament, which describe the life of Christ himself. There you'll learn about a Christianity that is far different from what is portrayed by our culture as Christian. (hint: you won't find anything about politics in there. Christ had no interest in changing the government. He only had interest in changing people's hearts and serving their everyday needs).

      March 30, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  25. Joe Bouback

    Pinehaven is definitley NOT a Christian school. It is the devils school. It should be shut down NOW!!!!!

    March 28, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • Hawk

      Unfortunately it can easily be considered by its founder/owner as a Christian school – depending on which passages of the bible he considers most valid.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Jeff

      You are using the "No True Scottsman" logical fallacy. When a group does something contrary to popular opinion, you claim, they are not TRUE Christians. False. This is a logical fallacy, and the only way you can distance yourself from the illegal behavior of your fellow believers. Are the priests who rape children NOT Christians? How about the ones that kill non-believers? How about the ones that subjugate women in accordance with the Bible? How about the ones that kill gay people or limit their legal rights? What about the ones that pass laws against non-Christians, like the Arkansas Constitution, South Carolina, Texas, etc.? Christianity is the only organization that institutionalized the rape of children. Get over yourself, Christians are abhorrent, cruel, and purposely disregard law and common sense because their GAWD told them to do it. Religion is going to kill us all.

      March 30, 2012 at 11:16 am |