They came in search of the American dream, a chance to use their talents to secure a U.S. collegiate education and a brighter future. What they claim they received instead was a Southern-fried nightmare: A church-backed school exploiting its students to work for its own profit, all while physically abusing them on the basketball court on multiple occasions.
THIS is the story of Richmond (Va.)
Southside Baptist Christian School and its recruitment and exploitation of basketball players from Jamaica, whether it originally intended to exploit them or not. It is a saga that began in 2007 and eventually left multiple teenagers stranded without proper immigration paperwork and without a school transcript and often in debt.
More specifically, four Jamaican teenagers who were allegedly left stranded in an economic bind by the school spoke on the record with Prep Rally. Others interviewed also spoke on the condition of anonymity. While there, all four of the teenagers were present when three were allegedly whipped after returning from a game and all claim to have witnessed a coach violently attack a fellow foreign teammate during a practice.
The players' entire stories were chronicled in a series of lengthy interviews with Prep Rally and ScoutsFocus, which first made contact with a concerned Southside Baptist athlete. Prep Rally placed a phone call to the school's administration, where a message was taken for the school's founder Dr. Lonnie Stinson, but that message has yet to be returned.
The 2008 Southside Baptist basketball team — Chris Villiars photo
For their efforts, Christopher Villiers, Melvin Robinson, Omarie Williams and Jason Smith, all natives of Jamaica, were forced to work extreme hours at a thrift store owned by Southside Baptist Church and to do odd jobs for which they were auctioned off to the highest bidder. At the school, the teens and their classmates were given expired food which was donated by a local supermarket and were never paid any of the personal stipends they were promised when they agreed to come to Virginia from Jamaica. Additionally, they were charged monthly fees for insurance that had never been disclosed on the contracts they originally signed in their homeland.
In short, the athletes in question claim they were abused -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- and left to find their own way. Incredibly, while only one of the four Jamaican natives was allowed to graduate from the school, two eventually made their way into American colleges via basketball. One is still at an American institution, while the other was forced to return to Richmond when Southside Baptist officials backed off a promise to aid him financially during his first semester of college. The other two teens are desperately searching for a place to play basketball and learn.
This is their story, as told to Prep Rally.
"THEY TOOK ADVANTAGE OF THE FACT THAT WE WERE DEPENDENT"
Christopher Villiers was a member of the original crew of Jamaican recruits to attend Southside Baptist. Now 18, Villiers came to the states before his freshman year, an impressionable 14-year-old hoping to make his mark at a new school and get the attention he'd need to earn himself a college scholarship.
At first, everything was progressing as Villiers expected; he was learning in small classes -- the school has only 145 students and an average teacher-to-student ratio of 1:8 -- and he was improving on the basketball court, particularly during practices with his older Jamaican teammates, Omarie Williams and Melvin Robinson.
Then, months after he'd arrived, things started to take a troubling turn.
"I don't mind the hard work, but they took advantage of the fact that we were dependent on them," Villiers said in an interview with ScoutsFocus founder Joe Davis, who originally introduced Villiers to Prep Rally. "During the school year after classes instead of basketball practice we would go to the thrift store and work late into the night. During the summer we worked from 7 a.m.- midnight.
"They did things that benefited them like lying on paperwork to get a driver's license for one of the guys also on scholarship so he could drive the truck for them. They took our phones so we couldn't communicate to our parents to voice our complaints. When we did get our phones for a day they had already read our messages violating our privacy because they 'owned us.'"
In fact, that last aspect was taken quite literally during Villiers' final year at the school during the 2011-12 school year. On one occasion, the teen said he was sent to do random yard work and chores for a fee of $55, which was paid to the school, not Villiers.
Jason Smith's experience at the Southside Thrift Store was equally disturbing.
"We would work at the thrift store from maybe 7 or 8 in the morning until really, really late. We were breaking down walls just to make it functional. If you were at school and got in trouble you would get sent to the thrift store. You would get detention just for walking across the street to another room, and then you would get sent to work in the thrift store.
"When we first started, they said they were going to pay us. Maybe would get $100 every couple of weeks, and they claimed I would get less because of the money I owed. But a few weeks later they made something up about us not wanting to work, so we stopped getting paid. We only got paid like two times."
Omarie Williams was worked equally hard, even after he had already left the school and come back to marry one of the church's parishioners. According to Richmond area basketball skills coach Kent Greenway, the church was having Williams work more than 70 hours a week for only $300 in monthly salary.
"They're working Omarie like 70 hours a week for $300 a month. We used to laugh about it being slave labor, and then he started taking it seriously and he asked if I could help go back to school. He decided it was better to go back to school and get a degree.
"I sent Omarie down to Florida to play for Gulf Coast, and the coach was going to give him a scholarship and the whole deal. When he came back to Richmond and they found out that he was going to play basketball, the church went AWOL. They even tried to break he and his pregnant wife up."
While it may seem shocking that Villiers, Smith and their classmates didn't come forward before, there were valid reasons for that. Predominant among them was a lack of ability to communicate with the outside world because the teens' host parents or instructors would nearly constantly claim their mobile phones. Sometimes using grounds of illicit content on the phone (Hip Hop music was referenced by more than one student Prep Rally spoke to) and sometimes for sending text messages to girls. When they were allowed to call, the Jamaican students claim they were often limited in terms of the amount of times they were allowed to call their parents.
That possessed phone was particularly costly for Smith, as it kept him from taking a trip to California during a school break to meet one of his siblings for the first time. After hearing that he would have a scheduled school break in the fall, Smith's sister arranged and organized a trip for him to visit her. Then, shortly before the break, Smith became involved in an intimate relationship with a female classmate, a decision that other members of the church disapproved of. Shortly thereafter Smith was put "on lockdown," barred from leaving the campus. He was not allowed to visit California, despite the fact that the rest of the school was away and his sister had paid nearly $1,000 for his plane fare.
Making matters worse, Smith's phone was taken away from him, and he wasn't allowed to warn his sister that he couldn't come. Smith claims that failed visit continues to damage his relationship with his sister to this day, in part because she couldn't believe that any school would take away his phone for such a minor issue.
"She's still mad at me because of that," Smith said.
"THEY LINED US UP AND WHIPPED US"
While the conditions that surrounded the Southside players' lives off the court may have been troubling, their performance on the court was impressive. All four of the teens profiled here by Prep Rally received interest from colleges, with two landing scholarship offers. Those offers came in part because of their success at Southside Baptist.
Yet the teens were also forced to endure troubling circumstances while playing for the team, including one horrific incident when the gymnasium doors were locked and the teens were lined up and flailed with a large whip, which Villiers compared to the size of a cricket bat. Four different teenagers independently confirmed that the incident occurred after a game, and all said they were scarred by the abuse — which occurred after a player was flatulent on the team bus after a game -- but had attempted to put it in their past.
Only Williams was not whipped during that run-in because he refused to be. Instead, he was meted out punishment by being restrained from team activities and being forced to do more chores related to the team.
"My mom never hit me," Villiers said. "I was the last one to be whipped. … I didn't come here for this. I came here to go to school, play basketball and be respectful."
While confirming that he was whipped, Robinson said he desperately tries to put the incident out of his mind, but said "I took mine."
On another occasion, the teenagers were witness to a violent attack by one of the team's coaches on a player. Again according to multiple sources, Southside head boy's basketball coach Reginald Stinson threw a ball at the head of another of the school's foreign players, a player from Europe who requested his name not be used, when he repeatedly failed to execute a drill. The player who was struck with the ball instinctively ran at the coach but stopped short of attacking him. That's when Stinson allegedly jumped on top of the student and began beating and choking him. It was only after the attacked player's teammates intervened that Stinson was pulled away, all while he and his brother, assistant basketball coach Trenton Stinson, yelled at the players to never challenge the coaches' authority.
Unsurprisingly, the player in question left the school shortly thereafter for another school in Chicago.
Prep Rally tried to reach both of the Stinson brothers through the school, but that message has not been returned.
HOLDING TRANSCRIPTS AND IMMIGRATION STATUSES AS RANSOM
Unfortunately, the Jamaican teenagers at Southside couldn't extricate themselves from the school so easily, in large part because they felt it was important to remain in America. While other players could return home to a more stable life, the likes of Villiers, Williams, Robinson and Smith were all determined to find a way into a better life in America than the one they left behind in Jamaica.
That determination gave Southside Baptist a powerful tool, since the school was responsible for verifying the athletes' immigration status as students in good standing. As it turns out, the school was all too willing to wield that status as a bargaining chip to try and get additional money from the students on their way out the door.
For Smith and Villiers, that departure came of no fault of their own. Both were unilaterally expelled from the school, Villiers within two months of his own graduation when he was scheduled to be the school's valedictorian. In Villiers' case, the teen was expelled during a trip to visit friends of his family in New York, a trip he took after being encouraged to do so by school officials shortly after Williams' falling out with the church.
Villiers was informed of his expulsion via text message and told that all of his belongings would be held for him at the host family where he was staying. The text message from Trenton Stinson that informed Villiers of his dismissal can be seen below, and it explicitly states that he would not be furnished a transcript, despite the fact that Villiers had spent more than 3 1/2 years at the school.
Without a transcript, Villiers had no hope of moving on to another school, making graduation from high school impossible. That in turn has threatened his immigration status, with Southside Baptist still holding custody of his I-20 visa status, which legitimizes him as a student in good standing.
The text message expelling Chris Villiars from Southside Baptist
"Chris goes to New York with the idea he'll be up there for a weekend, and they call him up and tell him don't come back. And they say they're not going to give him his transcripts, and they turn in his I-20.
"Chris is a really nice kid. He doesn't deserve this. And I think it's Southside Baptist's fault that he is in a bind over his I-20 paperwork."
Villiers' incident might seem like an isolated occurrence if it didn't bear a striking resemblance to what happened to Smith. During his junior year, Smith was expelled from the school for having inappropriate material on his mobile phone (now in college, Smith claims that all he had were text messages with girls who were friends and a small group of hip hop songs).
After being summoned to a church council meeting where he was informed he was expelled, the church attempted to schedule a flight for Smith to return to Jamaica. Instead, he decided to travel to suburban Atlanta, where he had a sister, with a brother also living nearby. Once arriving in Georgia, Smith attempted to enroll for his senior year at Stephen's County High School. All of Smith's initial registration paperwork was filed correctly, and he began the school year in good standing.
However, a week into the semester Stephens County officials were still unable to get their Southside Baptist counterparts to transfer Smith's transcript or immigration status into their care. Smith was forced to reach out to try and resolve the issue himself, at which point he was told that he owed the school $1,500.
Naturally, that sum seemed excessive for a student on a full scholarship. Yet Southside Baptist sent over an itemized bill of charges which Smith insists were fabricated out of thin air. After consulting with a lawyer, the family decided to cobble together the funds needed to clear Smith's alleged debt at the school so his transcript and immigration status could be transferred to Stephens County.
Yet, when he returned to Southside Baptist officials with the money in hand, Smith was told that he actually owed $3,200, at which point he was presented with another final bill with even more charges.
Despondent, the Smith family returned to Stephens County with the bad news. Yet Stephens County officials were allegedly so touched by Smith's struggles that they allowed him to continue taking independent study courses so he could work toward an technical degree, even though that would force Smith to make up more than three years worth of course work in the span of a semester.
Incredibly he pulled off the feat and graduated, eventually attracting the interest of Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Ga. While the school wanted Smith to attend and play basketball for the institution, he again faced obstacles from Southside Baptist, which refused to confirm that he had been a student, placing his immigration status in jeopardy.
Eventually Smith was able to fight those rulings and later gained American citizenship to maintain his place at the school. Now, he wants to make sure that others don't face the harrowing struggles that befell he and his teammates at a school which all four Jamaicans who would speak on the record noted was run by a family interconnected throughout a small church community.
"I see on their website that they're getting more foreign students in, and that scares me," Smith said. "It's not a safe place to be. The church, the people there are almost like a cult."
Basketball skills coach Kent Greenway, who has worked with all of the players and others in the Southside Baptist program, was a bit more equivocal, but agreed that the church had clearly slipped beyond its bounds in how it treated its foreign students.
"I think they did wrong, but they're not completely bad people," Greenway said. "They just made some bad decisions and treated some kids wrong.
"Those people are on a power play. They have those kids working their ass off."
Prep Rally is still waiting to hear back from the church for their officials to explain how any of this could have happened at a school which marketed its basketball program as a way for students in Jamaica to earn a brighter future for themselves and their family.