MONROVIA, Montserrado – Students and parents from the More Than Me Academy gathered outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, October 23 to defend Katie Meyler, the founder of the organization, and call for the school to be kept open, amid demands from protestors for the school’s closure.
Meyler had been implicated in a rape scandal at the organization, detailed in a report by ProPublica. The article described an organizational culture that was more concerned with protecting the image of More Than Me than about ensuring that the perpetrators were punished swiftly and implementing proper measures to prevent further harm to children.
Speaking during the protest at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cecelia Freeman, a ninth-grade student at the More Than Me Academy, said she thought Meyler had done nothing wrong. Instead, like many placards suggested during the protest, she believed that she trusted Macintosh Johnson and he had failed her and the victims.
Since then, Freeman said the school had implemented policies forbidding staff from being alone with students.
“This happened five years ago, and if they keep talking about this, the girls will keep reflecting on past, and they will get traumatized again,” Freeman added.
She said those advocating for the school’s closure should prioritize the welfare of the girls in the school. Because many of their parents cannot afford to send them to other schools, she said it was best that they remain in a school that was providing their education for free.
Unlike the vast majority of public schools which are only nominally free, and schools are allowed to charge registration fees, the More Than Me Academy does not charge its students. The school also provides a nurse on site for services such as first aid, deworming, and referrals to other health facilities for more serious issues. The academy also offers facilities that are rare in Liberian schools, including a library and modern sanitation facilities.
“Government should know that closing MTM will not only affect the scholarship students, but also those 19 schools that are under the school’s partnership program with the Ministry of Education,” Freeman added. “Some of our friends were not in school when Katie came. She helped us, and we had the opportunity to get in school. Now if we drop out of school, what will the government of Liberia do for us?”
That sentiment of a lack of faith in their government to cater to their needs was expressed by the More Than Me supporters throughout the protest. Many parents said they did not think the government was capable of providing the services More Than Me was supplying, in the school’s absence.
In her message to the president, Freeman said, “Mr. President, I am a student of the academy. Tell those investigating the issue to investigate well – you should think wisely and not just listen to rumors from the protesters who are saying you should close the academy down and you should look at the future of girls of Liberia and know that they are the future leaders for tomorrow.”
One parent who lives in West Point, Angeline Nynnoh, also begged the president to keep the institution running.
“We are in the street today because our children are crying on us,” she said. “My daughter is about ten years, and she’s in the fourth grade, and that is all due to Katie’s goodwill.”
Many other parents expressed concern that the renewed focus on the case was causing stigma for their children. The parents said the girls, who wear a distinctive red and black checkered uniform, have been called “aids patient” and other similar names because of the reports that one of the girls raped at the school contacted HIV.
During the protest, a disturbing scene emerged that showed just how widespread the impact of Johnson’s sexual assault of girls at the school was. One of the students unwittingly admitted to having been sexually assaulted by Johnson.
“He used to carry us in the water to go swim. He would put his finger all under us. When we’re in his room, he can be holding our breast and doing different, different things to us. He was abusing some of the girls by going out with them,” she said.
Asked if she was one of the victims, the girl said, “No, but he fingered me once. I told my mother, and she asked me to keep far from him. Even when we go in the water, he can be far, and I can be far.”
The protest in support of keeping the school opened came just after another group of protesters demanded that the government take actions against More Than Me.
On Monday, October 22, protesters demanded that administrators at the academy be dismissed, and it be run by qualified professionals who value the interest of children until the final investigation is complete. The government has already said it would appoint a financial manager to run the More Than Me Academy.
The protestors also requested a travel ban against Katie Meyler until the investigation is complete and its results made public. They further asked that the Liberian government inform its American counterpart government of Meyler’s negligence as reported in the documentary to ensure that all accounts of Meyler and the academy are frozen and turned over to the new management that will be identified by the government.
“Today, the street has become homes to many children whose parents cannot afford the basic necessities for better lives, but it’s time that Katie and other perpetrators face justice,” said Fatima Bility, one of the leaders of the protests.
Featured photo screenshot of Hott FM video