14 January 2019

Liberia: American-Founded Liberian Academy's Investigation Looms Over Parents

Photo: Nation
Rape survivors during an interview at Ruben centre, Nairobi.

Parents of students at an all-girl American academy in Liberia are anxiously awaiting an investigation into allegations that the charity failed to act on signs of a staff member’s sexual abuse.

A 2018 expose published by the U.S.-based research organization ProPublica and Time magazine on the More Than Me Academy sparked public outrage over the widespread rape and exploitation of girls who were supposed to be rescued.

But some of the parents are frustrated with how the story has been told and reject calls for the academy to close its doors.

Some of the parents sitting before me in a small, dark alley in their West Point community, Liberia’s largest slum, have been sending their girls to the More Than Me Academy since the charity opened in 2013.

But their allegiance is being tested.

The academy, which aims to protect girls by getting them off the street, is being investigated over a rape scandal.

Somo Golafaie, a parent of two More Than Me students, says her daughters are saddened by the news. They constantly hear about their school’s sexual abuse case on the radio.

The exposé in ProPublica and Time magazine accuses the school of failing to act as Macintosh Johnson, a Liberian co-founder, raped girls as young as 11 years old, infecting at least three with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Johnson was arrested in 2014 when the rapes were first reported.

The case ended in a mistrial and Johnson died in custody.

Critics blame American founder Katie Meyler, and other staff, for ignoring signs of abuse.

Caroline Bowah Brown is a prominent activist in Liberia. A member of the Liberia Feminist Forum, she is a leading organizer in the “We Are Unprotected” campaign that protests the molestation and oversights at the academy. Flanked by her fellow protesters in their signature all-black attire, Brown denounces the school for its lack of preparation and safeguarding.

“They did not have adequate measures in place, adequate procedures in place to be able to deal with these issues. We are talking since 2014; there’s been severe negligence on the part of the management of More Than Me. And Katie Meyler is responsible,” Brown said.

Meyler stepped down from the board of the charity, which critics want closed.

They say it was never qualified to work with Liberia’s vulnerable girls and blame the government for allowing it to operate.

Solomon Denue, a longtime parent at More Than Me and the school’s PTA chairman, says Meyler isn’t the only one at fault.

“This thing should not be blamed on Katie alone. Though Katie had a part in it, but we the parents and the government of Liberia, we have the giant share of it,” Denue said.

Denue says that parents should have been more careful in protecting their children. He says they let Johnson have too much unsupervised access to students. He also condemns government officials for not being more vigilant and responsive at the onset of the case.

And while parents anxiously await the investigation results, some argue the academy still has value. They want the school to stay open and to continue receiving support.

Angeline Nyannoh, another MTM parent, is begging donors to not turn their backs on the children.

“If this school breaks down tomorrow, the children will take the street back. They will still do the same sex for money what they were doing before, before Katie went and took them from there,” Nyannoh said.

It's not yet clear when the Liberian government will finish the investigation of the More Than Me Academy.

Parents have welcomed the inquiry but are upset it took four years– and they don’t like the attention.

Their children are teased because they attend the academy, which – despite the ongoing investigation - still assists in running 18 schools in Liberia.

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