“He Couldn’t Breathe”: Old Schoolhouse Owners Accused of Waterboarding, Child Abuse

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This story is a modified version of a previous piece written by Hännah Ettinger (Wine & Marble) and R.L. Stollar (Homeschoolers Anonymous) on October 8, 2014.

Eric Novak grew up in Christian homeschooling circles.

He was employed from 2008-2011 by Paul and Gena Suarez, founders of The Old Schoolhouse (TOS) magazine, which boasts a readership of around 200,000. Paul and Gena speak at homeschool conventions and are seen within the homeschool community as advocates for the homeschool lifestyle. The Suarezes’ main business, TOS, is endorsed by the Great Homeschool Conventions and James Dobson as well as financially sponsored by HSLDA, the Home School Legal Defense Association.

TOS has a long history of adoration for and promotion of Michael and Debi Pearl’s No Greater Joy ministry. In 2005 TOS’s devotional editor Deborah Wuehler interviewed a member of the Pearl family for TOS, in which she wrote the Pearls were “the pioneers of homeschooling in the early 1970s” who “helped countless numbers of parents with their child training questions.” A year later the Suarezes “team[ed] up” with Michael and Debi Pearl in 2006 for a Christian homeschool conference in Germany. TOS even went so far as to give away free copies of the Pearls’ book To Train Up a Child in their “welcome packages” to new homeschoolers. After the death of homeschool kid Sean Paddock, whose mother used the Pearls’ recommended plumbing supply line for corporal punishment, Gena Suarez callously defended the Pearls, saying, “The only way you can kill a child with that is by shoving it down his throat.”

This, as well as other acts of promotion of the Pearls’ “child abuse materials,” led to a boycott of TOS in 2006 by gentle parenting bloggers

During Novak’s time as an employee of  TOS (and later, as he became a close friend to the Suarezes’ oldest son), he discovered that the Suarez and Igarashi families (the mothers of both families are sisters) are embroiled in an intense feud over physical and sexual abuse that has allegedly occurred in the family.

What Eric Novak learned about the Suarez family involved alleged physical abuse of their children as well as alleged sexual abuse within the family. According to various accounts, the Suarezes 22-year-old son, Luke, sexually abused two of his younger siblings and his young cousin, the son of Jenefer Igarashi. Luke currently has continued access to his siblings, as he lives at home with his parents. He is regularly in contact with children in the homeschool community, thanks to his family’s business. According to Novak, the Suarezes often get put up in the homes of other homeschool families when they travel. Novak relates:

“They continued going to conventions and such, and I know that for a fact that at conventions, they’ll like stay with homeschool families, and he’ll like, sleep in the younger kids’ rooms. And that’s what I’m most concerned about.”

The physical abuse allegations involve the abuse of all of the Suarez children, as well Gena’s youngest sister, “Megan.”

When Gena’s mom died, Paul and Gena took in Megan, Gena’s third sister. Megan was 13 years old and Gena was around 26. Megan claims that once she joined their family, Gena turned into a fairy-tale worthy evil surrogate mother, turning Megan into a servant and depending on her for her primary childcare support. It got to the point where even the neighbors jokingly called Megan “Cinderella,” according to a written statement by Megan (given to us by Eric Novak):

Even friends and neighbors of Gena and Paul would refer to me as “Cinderella.” It was evident to all who knew us what my role in the family was: babysitter, house cleaner and servant… and physically or mentally abused (instead of properly disciplined), when I would act childish or foolish. I was left in charge and instructed to care for and discipline the younger children in the home – even told to strike them in the face when ‘disobedient’ or ‘disrespectful’ (they’d give me ‘slapping privileges’), which still haunts me today.

Megan alleges that the Suarezes didn’t just use her for free labor. She says they physically abused her and their other children and claimed that the abuse was God’s will. It seems like they employed the Pearls’ “will-breaking” methods quite studiously. This is also from Megan’s written statement:

I witnessed and was a victim of physical and mental abuse while in the home. I watched Gena as she would strip her youngest son down (around 4 yrs old), put him in the bathtub and run cold water over his face so that he couldn’t breathe. They would have their second oldest son strip down naked and repeatedly douse him with cold water. Gena would brag that she “finally found a punishment that would get them to obey”. She would also have her children stand in the corner so long they were forced to wet their pants. I also remember seeing her boys be made to ‘make up from a fight’ by inappropriately kissing various parts of each other’s body to the point of everyone in the room feeling awkward and uncomfortable… except for Gena, who would laugh… Remembering back on these things makes me sick almost to the point of throwing up. 

…Close to the time I finally fled, it had gotten to the point that I didn’t want to live anymore. I would fantasize about dying. I couldn’t please them no matter how hard I tried. I was literally a slave in the home and punished as such when I couldn’t meet their impossible standards. What hurt the most after I fled was knowing the abuse that would continue in the lives of the children.

After Megan escaped, she found support in her other older sister, Jenefer Igarashi, and has thrived. She is now married and mentors in her community and is herself a homeschool mom. She remains a devout Christian.

For his part, Novak has decided to speak up about the allegations he learned about. He created a video explaining why he decided to speak up about the allegations against the Suarezes and his former employer The Old Schoolhouse. He also wrote an open letter to Heidi St. John, a popular homeschool speaker for the Great Homeschool Conventions, who is alleged to have participated in covering up these situations of abuse.

Other parties alleged to be involved include the National Center for Life and Liberty’s David Gibbs III, HSLDA president Michael Smith, and the Great Homeschool Conventions’ Brennan Dean.

For the full story about the allegations of the Old Schoolhouse cover-up, see HA’s original news piece here.

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