An Iowa man is in jail following a 19-month investigation into allegations that he abused multiple teenage students at the boarding school he operated in Keokuk, Iowa.
According to an Associated Press (AP) report, authorities believe 39-year-old Benjamin Trane used his position as director of Midwest Academy to pressure at least one student into a sexual relationship and convince others to disrobe during sessions described as “body image therapy.”
The married father pleaded not guilty this week to criminal charges including sexual exploitation by a counselor, child endangerment and third-degree sexual abuse.
The allegations prosecutors presented against the defendant stemmed from a lengthy investigation that began when a search warrant was served at the private school in January 2016. Midwest Academy, which housed about 100 students with a tuition of up to $50,000, has been closed throughout the criminal probe.
Authorities were called to the school dozens of times, and for a variety of reasons, in the months leading up to the investigation. The Des Moines Register reported that 11 students escaped the 70-acre campus via the cafeteria in April 2015 alone. Trane’s so-called “merit model” of education has been characterized by critics as a form of brainwashing.
Special agent Joe Lestina of the Division of Criminal Investigation wrote in his criminal complaint that Trane repeatedly abused a female student throughout 2015. He allegedly prevented the girl from contacting her parents and told her that performing various sex acts would be the only she could “level up” in the school.
According to Lestina’s complaint, Trane is suspected of using his position of authority to abuse other students by attempting to engage in sex with them or holding them in solitary confinement.
One of his alleged victims, 19-year-old Kennedy Thayer, provided details about the treatment she said she and other students received from Trane. She recalled being asked in 2015 about her sexual fantasies and experiences. According to Thayer’s testimony, Trane also took female students to Victoria’s Secret to shop for lingerie.
“Jail is nothing compared to that place,” Thayer said. “It was horrible.”
Prosecutors alleged Trane prompted girls to undress for him under the guise of therapy sessions to address body image issues. The complaint claims he also led the girls in graphic sexual conversations, in part by assigning inappropriate questionnaires like the ones described by Thayer.
Other students described being held in so-called “isolation boxes” for as long as weeks at a time. In addition to the sexual abuse, Lestina wrote that such confinement presented “substantial risk to the students’ physical, mental or emotional health and/or safety.”
Trane, along with the company that leased the school building to him, also faces a lawsuit filed by an attorney representing a number of former students.
He was remanded on Friday to Lee County Jail, where he was being held on $500,000 bond.
[Feature Photo: Lee County Sheriff’s Office]