Several foreign students taken from a Christian school in southeast Georgia remain in state custody after a juvenile court hearing Friday morning in Long County. Meanwhile, federal immigration authorities say they are continuing an investigation following a raid at Faith Baptist Christian Academy in Ludowici, Ga., on Wednesday night.
Pastor Terry Sellars’ office at Faith Baptist Church is filled with Civil War memorabilia, a bouquet of tiny flags emblazoned with the Confederate Stars and Bars, and shelves lined with Christian books. There’s even an old-school wooden paddle on one of the bookshelves by his desk.
Sellars says the church-run school began its international student program about four years ago as an offshoot of its religious mission.
"These students would have an opportunity to get an education, participate in extracurricular activities, but it would also provide us an opportunity to share the gospel with them," Sellars says.
About 30 students – most of them older teenagers – were living in the school gymnasium’s second floor until this week’s raid by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Sellars says they came from countries including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and the British Virgin Islands, although he says some were U.S. citizens.
His son Matthew Sellars, the school’s athletic director, says international students come to Faith Baptist to get an education and, in some cases, hoping to earn an athletic scholarship for college. They pay tuition on a sliding scale based on family income, he says, often around $250 a month.
Georgia foster care authorities seized eight children who were under 18 after the fire marshal and local code inspectors found safety violations, cramped living conditions, and dirty restrooms.
Sellars says the school is working to fix all of that.
"No one has been mistreated," he says. "We just genuinely love them, they love us, and I think they all are excited to get right back to things as they used to be."
Sellars declined to make students available for interviews, citing school policy. He says 22 students who are 18 or older are living with host families and are back in school.
A Long County Juvenile Court Judge Linnie L. Darden III has given permission for four of the minors to be released to relatives or returned home, while the state works to make contact with the families of the rest.
Shawn Brown is the Liberty/Long County Director for the state Department of Family and Children Services.
"I want to remind everybody that these are kids," Brown says. "The same standards that a resident of the US that lives in Long County has are the same standards and expectations that are in place for these children."
ICE Special Agent Scott McCormack said in Long County Court that the raid was prompted by the discovery of several foreign students living in Florida who were supposed to be attending another Christian school in Georgia with apparent ties to Faith Baptist in Long County.
ICE spokesman Vincent Picard says the second school, Faith Baptist Christian Academy North in Stockbridge, appears to have shut down. He says immigration authorities are following up on leads and talking with people connected to both schools.