A Harlem School That Former Students Say Is Run Like ‘A Cult’ Faces New Scrutiny

A HuffPost investigation has uncovered more disturbing allegations out of a New York City private school. Now, the New York City Department of Education says it’s investigating.

NEW YORK — Five years ago when Kaiya showed up for the first day of senior year at Atlah High School in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, she had barely made it in the building before an administrator told her to leave. She was told she had been expelled from the school.

But not because she had done anything wrong.

It turns out, she had merely offended the school’s leaders ― overseen by Superintendent James Manning, who is also the pastor of the church affiliated with the school ― by spending her summer break on a vacation with family, when school was out, instead of attending the graduation ceremony for the students a year above her.

And now, they were ready to ruin her life over it.

A HuffPost investigation published in April revealed that Atlah World Missionary Church ― designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center ― runs a K-12 private school where kids have been psychologically abused and systematically taught to fear LGBTQ people. The story was based on interviews with 27 people connected to the church and school, many of them former students with similar stories to Kaiya who said the institution was run like “a cult.”

HuffPost has spoken with nine more former students, former congregants and relatives of current church members. They have corroborated details of HuffPost’s initial report and contributed their own similar stories. They describe a pastor who harshly punishes students and promotes estrangement within families, at the same time running a private school that falsely bills itself as a high-tech, cutting-edge success.

On Sunday, seven months after HuffPost first asked the New York City Department of Education about these allegations, the agency told HuffPost it is investigating it. The agency is responsible for making sure private schools within its geographic district provide instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to that offered in public schools.

“Every student deserves a safe, high-quality education. We are investigating these allegations and urge anyone who believes they may have been the victim of misconduct to contact us,” department spokesperson Danielle Filson said in an email to HuffPost.

The agency did not provide details on what the investigation entails.

The New York State Department of Education has also been working to schedule a visit to the school, to determine whether it should be allowed to register with the state. The school has had pending registration status since at least 2013, which allows it to hand out diplomas approved by New York state while it waits for a decision. Since HuffPost’s initial investigation, the agency has reached out to obtain the information required to make such a determination but has not received the requested information, a spokesperson told HuffPost in October.

The Atlah World Missionary Church building in Harlem, New York, on April 16, 2019.
The Atlah World Missionary Church building in Harlem, New York, on April 16, 2019.
Damon Dahlen/HuffPost

Still, in recent months, former students have continued to come forward with their own stories of what they experienced, even as Manning has worked to discredit HuffPost’s initial investigation into Atlah. Manning called the investigation a hit job from “LGBTQ mafia” that had been written by a “lesbian witch.” He especially pushed back on an allegation that he sexually harassed and inappropriately touched a former student when she was 18. (The police previously investigated this case and wouldn’t comment on why it was closed.)

Some former students like Kaiya, who is going by her first name to protect her privacy, had their schooling interrupted over a petty grudge. Others were punished in draconian, humiliating ways for minor indiscretions. Some former students had family members disown them at Manning’s urging, leading to devastating rifts.

As Kaiya learned, she was being punished for choosing a pre-booked family vacation over a mandatory school event, which took place over the summer. Her family had already spent money on the vacation, and she didn’t imagine she could be punished for choosing to go with them rather than attend the Atlah event. She had always earned good grades and gotten along well with her classmates in her over two years at the school.

Now, after recently graduating from St. John’s University with a degree in education, she can’t believe her former school still exists.

“I almost feel like I was robbed of my high school experience,” said Kaiya. “A cult is what I compare it to.”

Yet about two dozen students shuffled through Atlah’s doors when the academic year started in September, entering a school that bills itself as one that can save children “from the homosexual demons in the public school system.”

Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: AP/Getty/Alamy

The ‘Greatest School In America’

Kaiya was allowed to return to Atlah after her mom pushed back against the expulsion. But there were strings attached.

Kaiya’s family members, who say they paid about $300 a month in tuition fees for their daughter to attend Atlah, would be required to spend up to six hours every Saturday attending church services at Atlah ― with the exception of Kaiya’s brother, who has cerebral palsy and is severely disabled. To comply with the demands, Kaiya’s family hired a home health aide to take care of him on church days. The family had an hour-and-a-half commute from Brooklyn, making their commute three hours round trip on top of the six hours at the church.

“[Manning’s] control comes from you being there all the time,” Kaiya said. “With that stipulation, he had leverage.”

The truce didn’t last long.

Kaiya’s family was once 15 minutes late to Saturday church services. As punishment, Kaiya was given a day of in-school suspension where she sat all day in the school office. And when Kaiya informed the administration that she would miss an upcoming Saturday service to attend a citywide music program to which she had been accepted, she was slammed with a three-day out-of-school suspension.

Kaiya’s mother, Paula, had learned about Atlah after watching videos of Manning’s sermons. She thought he preached the truth, and she started going to services. He told the family he ran the greatest school in America. His school was too high-tech to use textbooks ― instead, he said, the school employed cutting-edge equipment to create a virtual reality curriculum. Kaiya left the public school she had been attending for Atlah, amid promises of a high-tech, stellar education.

The school turned out to be not at all what the family expected.

When Kaiya showed up to the school in February 2012, she was directed to a classroom in a dusty converted bedroom on the top floor of Atlah’s building.

“They told me it was a virtual school. They said it was all state of the art. I was literally in a closet with some books,” said Paula, who in need of a job, worked there for six months as a teacher before getting dismissed. (She says she believes she was let go partly because of her willingness to question Manning.)

By her sophomore year, Kaiya says, her classes took place in the church sanctuary. Students sat in pews or on the ground, taking notes on the hard floor. In her junior year, Kaiya took classes in a vestibule area, where tables and chairs had been set up in a makeshift fashion.

But Kaiya kept her head down, eager to get her diploma and move on. Kaiya was a good student, and she had made friends. For the most part, the school seemed manageable.

That changed her senior year. By October, Kaiya’s family members were fed up with her being punished at school for missing church. They decided to transfer her to a public school.

“It happens nowhere else,” Kaiya said of the bizarre punishments she faced.

Kaiya was punished for choosing a pre-booked family vacation over a mandatory Atlah High School event, which took place over the summer and on the weekend.
Kaiya was punished for choosing a pre-booked family vacation over a mandatory Atlah High School event, which took place over the summer and on the weekend.
Damon Dahlen/HuffPost

Punishment Designed To Maximize Humiliation

Many people who have followed Manning’s career say his preaching has become more bombastic and his temper more erratic in recent years. Indeed, over the summer, the church’s lawyer, Stuart Shaw, quit. In legal documents filed as part of the church’s attempt to fight foreclosure, Shaw wrote that Manning “repeatedly addressed me in an inappropriate and vile manner,” and expressed concern that the pastor had not provided congregants with a full explanation of the church’s legal issues. The church is working to stave off foreclosure after failing to pay over $1 million in back taxes and unpaid bills, with Manning arguing the church should be tax-exempt and free from such fees. (When reached, Shaw wouldn’t comment further on the situation, pointing HuffPost to the aforementioned documents filed in the foreclosure proceeding.)

But Carl Aiken, now 31, remembers feeling the wrath of the school’s harsh disciplinary approaches ― overseen by Manning ― as part of Atlah High School’s second graduating class in 2006.

Aiken’s transgression was simple and classically adolescent: He refused to join his classmates in singing during a morning hymn session his senior year, and then mouthed off to his teacher.

His punishment seemed designed to maximize humiliation.

For part of a week, Aiken was forced to spend the day in the school’s pre-K classroom. The teenager, who says he was 6 feet, 2 inches tall at the time, sat alongside 4-year-olds, squeezing into tiny chairs that didn’t fit him.

I was sent there to be humiliated,” Aiken said.

For the other part of the week, he was forced to scrub toilets all day. He recalls a teacher supervising him, breathing down his neck, eager to tell him when he had missed a spot.

I believe certain things we do in our lives from birth to death, are destined for us to bear witness,” said Aiken, who now lives in Queens and has two kids of his own.

“It was all for me to observe and one day speak my piece about,” he added.

Manning admitted in a video he made in response to HuffPost’s initial investigation that students are sometimes made to clean toilets or perform other manual tasks as punishment and that the school isn’t shy about expelling students if he considers them a disruption.

In every school situation there are students that occasionally have to be dismissed,” Manning said in the April video.

“We made a decision many years ago rather than suspending students, if the infractions are not all that bad we would allow them to clean toilets or clean the boiler room,” he continued.

The Atlah World Missionary Church building in Harlem, New York, on April 16, 2019.
The Atlah World Missionary Church building in Harlem, New York, on April 16, 2019.
Damon Dahlen/HuffPost

The Center Of The Universe

Kaiya’s and Aiken’s situations were relatively unusual because they maintained the support of their families. For many people involved with Atlah, Manning is the center of their world. Sometimes they rely on him for spiritual guidance, shelter, schooling and employment. Sometimes Manning determines with whom they can socialize, to which family members they can talk and how they spend their money.

David Sincere Sherman, who is now 26 and works at a hotel in Rhode Island, doesn’t remember a time when his life didn’t revolve around Manning. He was born into the church and attended its school his entire life. For much of his childhood, he didn’t know anyone outside of Atlah. He wasn’t even allowed to chat with family members who weren’t in the church community.

That changed the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, while he was an unpaid counselor at Atlah’s summer camp in 2010.

He showed up to the camp in sneakers, an item that had long been banned by Manning. Manning said sneakers were “ghetto,” and he asked church attendees and students to wear dress shoes.

Sherman was asked to leave and to not come back. He was expelled from school and kicked out of the church ― all over his choice of footwear, he says. He spent his senior year at a public high school.

The punishment changed the trajectory of his life and shattered some of his closest bonds.

Sherman says his mother, who is still involved with the church, took Manning’s side. She kicked him out of the house on the day of his high school graduation. They no longer have a relationship, Sherman said. She did not respond to requests for comment.

“I truly believe if he told them to do anything, the people who are still there, they would legitimately do it,” Sherman said of Manning. “People are literally abandoning their children to do this.”

Kaiya transferred to a public school after her family was fed up with her being punished at school for missing church.
Kaiya transferred to a public school after her family was fed up with her being punished at school for missing church.
Damon Dahlen/HuffPost

Never Looking Back

Kaiya tried not to look back after switching to public school in 2014. But a year later, that became nearly impossible. That winter, she heard from an old friend named Tamar.

They had gone to Atlah together. Tamar had been in the grade above Kaiya.

Tamar confided that Manning had been speaking to her inappropriately. Kaiya believed Tamar immediately, even before she heard the recording Tamar had made proving it. In the tape, Manning can be heard telling Tamar that he wants to take off her clothing. In it, he also says that he first started having feelings for Tamar when she started at the school. She started at the school when she was 14 years old. (In response, Manning has repeatedly said the tape was doctored).

In the years that followed, Kaiya watched Tamar struggle with trust issues. She also saw how Manning destroyed the lives of several of her other friends from Atlah: He kicked them out of school, made their families desert them, and in some cases, left them homeless.

HuffPost’s previous investigation of Atlah centered on the stories of Tamar, her ex-boyfriend Sharif Hassan and several other students.

Kaiya read the story from home, hoping that Manning would finally be forced to answer for his behavior.

But in the days that followed, she watched Manning wage a smear campaign against her friends, sometimes with consent — and even participation — from their families.

I know this is not very pleasant for some who are connected to them by blood and family members, but they’re thugs,” Manning said from the pulpit several days after the story came out, referring to the former students who told their stories to HuffPost.

He continued, saying one former student “hasn’t graduated from anything, not even graduated from being an idiot and a liar.” He posted pictures of two of the students in the article, with the captions “Thug #1” and “Thug #2.” In one video he said that while we need stricter “gun control in school, we also need stricter thug control.”

In an interview with the New York Public Radio station WNYC several days after the article’s publication, Manning further tried to discredit the investigation and his former students.

“Who the hell is interested in four boys who don’t have a high school diploma, one of them, not in college, not married, don’t have a job?” he asked. “Who is interested in that story of four black boys in Harlem?”

Over the summer, the giant letterboard sign outside the church read, “The LGBTQ mafia is posting lies, attempting a hit job on our church. They want Harlem to be white and homo.”

Manning did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

At the same time, Manning has continued to brag about certain students’ success and has tweeted that his school is the best in America. He has touted students who have gone from Atlah to Ivy League schools or gotten large scholarships.

Kaiya knows she might be considered one of those success stories. She thrived at St. John’s University and is planning to go to graduate school. But she thinks that whatever success she may have is in spite of Manning, not because of him.

She’s just happy she got out when she did.

“You surrender total control to him,” she said.

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