A Popular Online Learning Platform Was Actually Created by an Underground Religious ‘Cult’
The creator of Acellus and the ‘cult’s leader has been accused of violence and abuse
It was summer when Mark Mauikānehoalani Lovell, a teacher at Palolo Elementary on Oahu, logged into Acellus Learning Accelerator, a remote education platform the school had planned to use as the pandemic shuttered classrooms for the foreseeable future. Unfamiliar with the product, Lovell scrolled through what seemed to be hundreds of its lessons. He eventually settled on humanities subjects, hoping to find something like his own class — a course called Hawaiiana and Pasifika — but quickly fell down a rabbit hole of disbelief. One minute turned into 10, and then an hour had gone by on the platform.
What Lovell discovered “was the most offensive thing I’ve ever seen,” he told OneZero.
By August, thousands of Hawaiʻi families were told their schools would be adopting Acellus Learning Accelerator to support online learning. But when the semester began, parents and teachers found what can be interpreted as racist, sexist, and other inappropriate material in a variety of Acellus courses. They immediately petitioned school districts to drop the product, causing parents in other states to realize their children, too, were using Acellus programs. Government records indicated the platform’s parent company had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal contracts. As of August 24, Hawaii’s Department of Education had purchased Acellus Learning Accelerator licenses for 78,670 students in 185 public and public charter schools. It later admitted that Acellus products have been used by the state for nearly a decade.
Hawai’i Set to Drop Acellus Remote Learning Platform Following Allegations of Abuse Against Creator
But other school districts across the country continue to use the platform
This September, Acellus came under intense scrutiny after the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets surfaced the company’s apparently racist and problematic educational materials. The Wall Street Journal also raised claims that Acellus’ creator, a man named Roger Billings, was the leader of a “religious sect,” a Mormon offshoot called the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion. Billings denied accusations that he is a polygamist, cult leader, and that he ever molested children in an interview with the Journal.
Interviews with 12 sources who have ties to the church… describe reports of physical and mental violence, the sexualization of minors, and the deliberate separation of families under Billings’ leadership.
But a OneZero investigation into Billings, the church, and the Acellus platform — based on documents from state departments of education, school accrediting bodies, and the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion, as well as interviews with former church followers, educators using Acellus, and parents whose children have been exposed to the platform — reveal alarming details about the fringe community that Billings established and how he created the widely adopted learning program.
Interviews with 12 sources who have ties to the church, including eight former members of the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion, describe reports of physical and mental violence, the sexualization of minors, and the deliberate separation of families under Billings’ leadership. Some of the allegations against Billings were made by individuals in his own family, including his child and a son-in-law. Many former members of the church described it to OneZero as a “cult.”
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion lived across at least three communities owned by Billings in Missouri, including inside an abandoned underground limestone cave retrofitted with dorms, dining halls, offices, and hydroponic gardens. Here, adults were reportedly coerced into unpaid labor while children were homeschooled as well as educated by the Acellus program. Interviews with experts on cults and Mormon fundamentalism situate Billings within a strain of Mormon men who allegedly see themselves as God-given patriarchs.
Eight individuals associated with the church who spoke to OneZero requested anonymity, citing privacy concerns; four others gave their names. Some of the individuals OneZero interviewed declined to speak on the record for fear of being targeted by Billings. Two sources specifically cited a fear of possible physical retaliation for speaking out.
OneZero’s investigation revealed additional details about the scope of Acellus’ educational program. OneZero identified federal government contracts showing the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education have spent nearly $150,000 on Acellus products. Tax filings indicate that Acellus’ parent company, the International Academy of Science, reported more than $9 million in revenue in 2017.
OneZero also obtained letters from educational authorities that show schools are resisting dropping Acellus, despite extensive documentation of potentially problematic content and families claiming that their children are being harmed by the platform. OneZero’s reporting revealed lapses in oversight, vetting, and judgment throughout the process of Acellus being welcomed into education systems, likely exacerbated by a national rush to adopt distance learning as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Dozens of examples of offensive content on the Acellus platform have been shared by parents on Twitter, YouTube, and in public and private Facebook Groups. One multiple-choice question asked students to identify which group Osama Bin Laden was the leader of, including a potentially racist reference to the “Towelban,” reported the Wall Street Journal. A vocabulary course uses the letter “X” for “Xenophobia.” A math lesson asks students to solve a word problem about gun control legislation.
A lesson obtained by OneZero asks students to choose which image matches the following statement: “Pam has a cat. Pat has a rag.” The slide, which purported to test the student’s reading comprehension and matching skills, included an image of two children, one wearing a cat mask and the other what appears to be a turban.
Lovell says one of the first lessons he witnessed was about Hawaiian history. He later posted a recording of it on Instagram. In the clip, an Acellus teacher states the islands were “discovered by Europeans in 1778,” with no mention of Native Hawaiians and their settlement of Hawaiʻi. Of Queen Liliʻuokalani, the Kingdom of Hawaii’s last sovereign monarch (misspelled “Liliukalani” by Acellus), the instructor says she surrendered to U.S. forces who “came in to protect the U.S. interests,” such as pineapple and sugar cane plantations.
Lovell, who is Native Hawaiian, called this a “whitewashing” of Hawaii’s complex history, one of Indigenous cultural genocide and continuing American occupation.
“It should not exist in the same school system where I’m trying to teach the truth,” Lovell said. “Why is our state paying tax dollars to a company that’s pimping falsehoods about our own people?”
In response to a request for comment on the issues raised in this report, a lawyer representing Acellus and Billings responded with the following:
Acellus takes all allegations of inappropriate content very seriously and, two months ago when these allegations were originally aired, completed a thorough review of each allegation. As a result, any content that was even potentially inappropriate has long since been replaced. Acellus has been providing quality online education for over 18 years and this responsibility is of the utmost importance. Its focus has always been to provide the most effective and inclusive curriculum possible, and it welcomes input and continued conversations from parents, educators, and administrators to ensure it continues to meet the needs of all of its students.
Dr. Billings is saddened by these false, outlandish and wholly uninformed caricatures of his faith and his life.
Outside of Mormon enclaves like Missouri and Utah, Roger Billings is relatively unknown. According to documents and reports reviewed by OneZero, Billings, who grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a chimerical figure with seemingly endless personas: a pioneer of hydrogen technology, a computer software whiz, a precocious entrepreneur, and an alleged “cult” patriarch. Business records show that Billings has spun a vast web of nonprofits, LLCs, business aliases, and short-lived ventures since the 1970s when he emerged in Provo, Utah, as a graduate from Brigham Young University (BYU) pitching clean energy and utopic hydrogen-powered communities. Apparent inconsistencies between Billings’ public statements about his higher education degrees and college records suggest Billings also expanded his pedigree as a result of establishing a nonprofit institution that awards nonaccredited degrees.
Billings dabbled in various industries including energy, personal computers, and information technology.
Two sources who knew Billings throughout his early life told OneZero that when it came to matters of science, Billings was extremely intelligent. “Hydrogen was his first passion,” said Bob Ridge, one of Billings’ high school classmates. In 1972, Billings told Deseret News that he could revolutionize transportation with hydrogen-powered cars. According to that same article, he even received a $2,500 research grant from the Ford Motor Company to construct what became a hydrogen-powered “Super Beetle,” which won a top prize in the 1972 intercollegiate Urban Vehicle Design Competition. Over the course of his career, Billings dabbled in various industries including energy, personal computers, and information technology, but also forayed into agriculture and wellness, business records show.
“He could help you see his vision,” David Eyerly, a former top official at Billings Energy Research Corporation, what was essentially a hydrogen R&D lab, told OneZero. “He was always interested in making each of us better individually instead of worrying so much about profits.”
Billings successfully pitched his vision to the likes of former Michigan governor George W. Romney, as well as the founder of Winnebago Industries, both of whom supported his hydrogen research efforts. According to Ridge, in the late 1970s, a young Billings even visited Microsoft founder Bill Gates to acquire software for his PC manufacturing company, Billings Computer Corporation. (Billings has reportedly claimed to be the “father of client-server computing,” and lost a contentious lawsuit over the patent of file-sharing software.)
At this time, Billings incubated an idea for a “Hydrogen Homestead,” an experimental house that could prove “you can run everything on hydrogen,” he told alternative newspaper The Pitch reporter Allie Johnson in 2005. In 1979, Billings relocated his business to Independence, Missouri, a city that believed it could transform itself into “the energy capital of the world,” reported the Kansas City Star. Here, “beneath the central Kansas plains,” Billings claimed five years later to have discovered a hydrogen store roughly 110,000 acres large and worth $2 billion, wrote the St. Joseph Gazette. Billings reportedly failed to drum up the financing to excavate the material. In 1984, he was ousted from Billings Energy Research Corporation by shareholders.
Billings reportedly failed to drum up the financing to excavate the material. In 1984, he was ousted from Billings Energy Research Company by shareholders.
The Acellus program being used in schools today has its roots in the International Academy of Science, a nonaccredited, nonprofit institution that Billings created in 1988. Currently, the International Academy of Science runs the Acellus Academy, an online K-12 private school, and the Acellus Learning Accelerator, a platform of more than 300 courses ranging from kindergarten reading to AP Statistics.
But in the late 1980s, the International Academy of Science had little presence. According to its tax-exempt filings, the International Academy of Science was established for “scientific education.” Billings would become one of its first alumni.
Billings may have overstated his credentials for the next three decades. Between 1985 and 1991, he completed a “Doctor of Research” in Applied Science Engineering at the Institute of Science and Technology, a certificate program of Billings’ own creation, which is not recognized by any commonly accepted accrediting body for institutions of higher education, such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The Missouri Department of Higher Education lists neither Acellus nor the International Academy of Science as an accredited institution. In turn, Billings publicly refers to himself as a doctor.
On his LinkedIn profile, Billings also indicates that he participated in a “postdoctoral study” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2016. An MIT spokesperson told OneZero that Billings completed a five-day applied cybersecurity course in 2016, and that “Individuals participating in Professional Education are not considered MIT postdoctoral associates or fellows.”
During the 1980s, Billings became the de facto leader of a Mormon offshoot group with scores of followers called the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion. Billings, as leader of the group, would go on to develop numerous products, including Acellus.
Three sources who spent time working on these products told OneZero that Billings recruited them as religious followers, which then turned into unpaid labor. They felt that he threatened them into compliance using physical and emotional violence. Seven of the eight former members who spoke to OneZero claimed to have either witnessed or experienced abusive acts committed or seemingly encouraged by Billings. They said Billings dictated numerous aspects of their lives, from where they could go, to when they socialized, to whom they could romantically be involved with.
One former follower said they were initially manipulated into working for Billings. “Of course we got the love bomb — ‘So happy to have you here!’” (Love-bombing is a term used to describe the way some high-control groups such as cults condition people using exaggerated shows of affection.) In exchange, the former member says, “[Billings] got free labor.”
This chapter of Billings’ life began when he met Ken Asay, a charismatic Utah sales manager claiming to be the reincarnation of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. According to someone close to Billings, his businesses were on the rocks. “I think Roger was discouraged because no one was listening to him on hydrogen,” this person told OneZero.
But the self-described prophet fed Billings the praise he needed, they said. In 1985, Billings and Asay had both moved to the Independence area, where they had amassed a small fellowship. According to David Howlett, a visiting assistant professor at Smith College who specializes in American religions, dozens of Mormon factions arose in the surrounding counties at this time.
Billings and Asay had been excommunicated by the Mormon church by 1985, according to Deseret News and the Daily Journal, and the pair created the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion. (Billings had claimed to be the “anointed redeemer of Zion” and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disagreed, according to a memo written in 1985 by an associate and lawyer who had at one point represented Billings and Asay and which was reviewed by OneZero.) Around that same time, March 1985, Asay and his wife died suddenly in a plane crash over Nebraska.
Billings described the group as a digitally oriented “unchurch” where people could sign up via email for a password to his broadcasts online.
Following Asay’s death, according to the 1985 memo, Billings referred to himself as the group’s leader as well as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. In 1989, Missouri records show that Billings registered the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion as a nonprofit corporation. Outwardly, Billings referred to the church as an informal prayer group. In his interview with The Pitch, Billings described the group as a digitally oriented “unchurch” where people could sign up via email for a password to his broadcasts online.
“The Roger Billings story is part of a broader story of men who don’t have a historical connection to leadership in a Mormon group, but become leaders,” Cristina Rosetti, PhD, a scholar of Mormon fundamentalism who lectures at University of California, Riverside, told OneZero. “This was something that was common in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s” when Mormon men expressed a renewed interest in what became known as a fundamentalist movement of the religion. Even on business records, Billings has referred to himself as “patriarch.”
In 1985, according to the same memo, Billings purchased a plot of wooded land bordering Blue Springs, only minutes southeast of Independence. Property records since then show that Billings and Maria Sanchez, an executive at the International Academy of Science, have owned seven adjacent plots covering several million square feet of land, one of which is zoned as a private school. The parcels feature a large limestone quarry which Billings christened “Science Mountain.” It yawns 8 million square feet beneath the earth.
According to The Pitch article and one source who said they previously lived on the property, the mine was refurbished to house the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion community. Certain parts of the underground facility were remade as commercial offices, while other areas contained dorms, dining areas, and laundry facilities. Residents kept livestock like horses, cows, and chickens above ground.
The Pitch’s Johnson, one of the only journalists to have visited Science Mountain, recalled driving through a parking lot into a tunnel leading underground. There were aquariums and people walking around in lab coats. “It felt weird to me that the women there were all dressed the same… they kind of talked in unison,” Johnson told OneZero. “There was a vibe there that they were almost servile. Everything kind of orbited around Roger Billings.”
Billings owned several properties in and around Independence, according to people who lived at these sites over the past three decades. Missouri business and real estate records corroborate those claims.
Certain parts of the underground facility were remade as commercial offices, while other areas contained dorms, dining areas, and laundry facilities.
According to numerous individuals, the cave in Blue Springs was the central hub for Billings’ companies that, on the whole, were technology ventures. A computer consultant for Acellus told The Pitch that some Acellus students were “offered the opportunity to work on research and development for Billings’ companies.”
Five former members told OneZero that Billings immediately put new members to work when they joined the community and that they were never paid for their labor. One company that Billings assigned workers to was Fsix, an operating system they described as basically a Linux server — according to the source, Billings explained the technology “by saying we did ‘magic things’ in there to make it.”
“The way they rationalize labor is… free housing, free meals, and all you have to do is work for one of his companies, which means they don’t get paid,” someone who visited Billings’ cave community for a few days told OneZero.
One individual who spoke to OneZero was familiar with GoldKey, a Billings startup that developed information security and encryption products. This person told OneZero they were asked to telemarket GoldKey using scripts that, in his opinion, contained “gimmicks and deceptions and tactics they wanted me to use to circumvent people.”
Another former member said he was also given a different role than he expected. “I thought I’d be a technical guy, and he put me in sales,” Colin Smith, an IT specialist who also worked on GoldKey while briefly living at one of Billings’ communities, told OneZero. “This guy is worth millions… All these people are working for him, but not getting paid. What documentation is he sending to the IRS?” Smith left the commune roughly 10 days later.
Billings’ companies have been contracted by some of the highest levels of government. Federal government contracting records show that GoldKey was awarded $14,745 in 2016 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education for IT software. In 2010 and 2012, another Billings company, WideBand Corporation, received at least $103,000 from the U.S. Army, including for its Small Business Innovation Research program. And in 2018 and 2019, Billings’ CybrSecurity Corporation received more than $22,600 from the U.S. Secret Service for the rental of antenna sites in Missouri and Florida.
“A huge number of cults engage in commercial activities with free labor,” Alexandra Stein, a social psychologist specializing in cults and a former member of a Midwest-based cult, told OneZero. “Some of them have overt front groups… like educational stuff,” Stein said, speaking generally about business operations managed by cults. “It brings money in and sends the message outward. The inner workings of the group are shrouded in secrecy.”
Sources say that Billings maintained separate personas and would play them off each other. “Based on descriptions [of Billings], it seemed like two different people were being discussed,” a longtime member of Billings’ church, told OneZero. “One might be a scientist, and then a different person might be a prophet of God.”
The 12 sources with intimate knowledge of the church told OneZero that it was also a place where Billings perpetrated abuse — against children and adults, both physically and emotionally.
According to six of those sources who witnessed his behavior firsthand, Billings could be violent or emotionally manipulative. Several of these sources also claimed that Billings would strike or threaten people over minor work infractions. They say other followers who left the group are kept silent by the fact that their family members remain with Billings.
The 12 sources with intimate knowledge of the church told OneZero that it was also a place where Billings perpetrated abuse — against children and adults, both physically and emotionally.
Sources indicate that Billings enforced a group hierarchy, situating himself at the top. “His way was right and… you had to be subservient, and couldn’t have any good ideas,” one person who fled Billings’ church told OneZero. “You couldn’t do anything but be his servant, and if you didn’t, you were ridiculed, mentally and emotionally.”
Smith, the IT specialist who left the group’s community in Gallatin, Missouri, after about 10 days, said he made his decision after several confrontations with Billings and his followers. In one instance, Smith’s daughter was reprimanded by Billings for walking around the town of Gallatin. Recalling the conversation, she told OneZero that Billings said she, “can’t do this. You can’t go out by herself. You might say some things that we don’t want people in Gallatin to understand.”
One follower who lived in the compound said Billings boxed their ears for making a simple mistake. “A month later, a huge blood clot came out of my right ear, and for the month, I couldn’t hear out of that ear. My right ear can only now hear 50% of what it used to,” they said. “That wasn’t by far the last time. Going forward from there, I was either slapped around or paddled or kicked or embarrassed… once or twice a month.”
The physical abuse wasn’t limited to just adults — at least two sources said it extended to children, some as young as two years old. The sources witnessed Billings using corporal punishment, doled out in the form of a flat wooden paddle.
James Monet lived with the group underground for more than two decades after his mother brought him there in the late 1980s. He told OneZero that “the physical abuse was there, but the worst possible abuse was mental abuse. Roger is an incredible man at manipulation. Though I had bruises on my face and body from him, it didn’t ever compare to the mental abuse.”
Several followers told OneZero that Billings often directed family members to separate from each other, which the followers obliged, dispersing them across his various properties in the area. One person said Billings commanded them to divorce their partner because he didn’t believe they were “soul mates.” Another claimed that Billings expected family units in the community to spend only a single hour together each day, a block in the evenings they referred to as “mothers with children time.”
According to four sources, Billings also dictated who people could marry, and others said he instructed already-married women to become his “companions.” Multiple former community members also told OneZero that Billings had several “celestial daughters,” or “plural soul mates” and that they were colloquially referred to as Billings’ “Queens.”
Another claimed that Billings expected family units in the community to spend only a single hour together each day, a block in the evenings they referred to as “mothers with children time.”
According to Smith, new members often felt pressured to consecrate their money. “You’re given everything you need, and you do what’s assigned to you, and the cream goes to Roger Billings and the upper execs,” one source told OneZero.
According to at least five sources who spent a significant amount of time in the community, day-to-day activities were extremely restricted: After waking up at 6 a.m., the next six hours were spent working, followed by lunch, and then another six hours of work, a day that stretched 12 hours or longer. “That was my life, and I have nothing to show for it except that it made Roger’s pockets bigger,” said one source who experienced the daily routine while living in the community.
Three individuals said they witnessed both adult women and underage girls dancing topless or in sheer materials at temple gatherings in what the sources described as an “expression of devotion” to the church’s leadership.
Some accusations against Billings came from one of his biological children, who, according to two sources who spoke to OneZero, chose to go by the name Angel.
Angel’s confidants told OneZero that Angel endured years of trauma from being raised within their father’s church. In an email reviewed by OneZero from Angel sent to a close friend, Angel said they escaped the community in 2013 and claimed to be the first of Billings’ children to have left the group.
“I definitely have PTSD, not just from occasionally being terrified while interacting with Roger, my dad, in the group […] But more so, the idea of me pushing the limits of what other people leaving Zion had done,” Angel wrote. “For a while, after leaving in January of 2013, I was terrified of being tracked down by Roger and taken unwillingly back to his group, to be locked in ‘the mine’ at the Underground.”
“For a while, after leaving in January of 2013, I was terrified of being tracked down by Roger and taken unwillingly back to his group, to be locked in ‘the mine’ at the Underground.”
On August 21, 2020, Angel died in West Jordan, Utah. They were found in a vehicle on the side of the road, and West Jordan Police told OneZero in late September that, pending the medical examiner’s report, their death is being treated as a suicide.
Before they died, Angel wrote about their life with Billings on a now-defunct website, BreatheForOxygen.com. OneZero has viewed an archived version of the site. They claimed that Billings was physically abusive and controlling, and said they would not choose to support the church, but did note that they felt some of its projects were worthwhile.
In another email sent to a friend a week before they died, which OneZero reviewed, Angel wrote, “Part of me wants to emotionally close off from Roger being my dad; to just suppress the emotions that I feel when I think about that. When I think about how I don’t approve of my dad, don’t feel safe around my dad, to the extent that I don’t even want any communication with him.”
Less than two weeks after their death, Billings notified the Internet Archive, where Angel’s website was preserved on its Wayback Machine, of a copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In the notarized letter reviewed by OneZero, Billings says he is the executor of Angel’s estate and that BreatheForOxygen.com was a copyrighted domain. “I have attached a certificate of death and am providing this notice in good faith and with the reasonable belief the rights I own are being infringed,” the letter states. The domain has since been removed.
Acellus has no discernible genesis. Rather, it apparently emerged out of several developments: Billings’ creation of the International Academy of Science, a suite of technology companies, and an effort to offer the children within the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion some sort of insular education.
Billings registered the now-defunct website, Fsix.com, in 1997. There, users could find shows like “The Acellus Channel,” and marketed products such as the Fsix Acellus Workstation, a desktop computer providing “student monitoring, analysis, reporting, and self-pacing.”
By the mid-2000s, according to two sources that OneZero spoke to, Billings was piloting his own homeschools using Acellus. One was in his cave, while the other — known as Rivendale Academy — was located on a property in nearby Gallatin on land that has been owned by Billings for years. (The Academy was reportedly named after Rivendell, an elven sanctuary in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books. Nearly every source OneZero spoke with said Billings was enamored by the fantasy universe.) Teachers would reportedly film classes on subjects like computer science.
Billings’ foray into education makes sense to Rosetti, the religious scholar. “A specific demographic of people are drawn to Billings because of preparedness and traditional values,” Rosetti told OneZero. “For someone interested in fundamentalism, this is an appealing model of educating children.”
“I struggled a lot in a lot of subjects,” said Jennifer, who was homeschooled in the cave after Acellus launched.
It’s unclear how closely the original Acellus homeschooling curriculum resembled today’s Acellus, but one former student said she felt that the education was lacking. “I struggled a lot in a lot of subjects,” said Jennifer, who was homeschooled in the cave after Acellus launched, and continued to use the platform after leaving the community. Jennifer is a pseudonym that OneZero granted to protect this person’s privacy. “[The Acellus lessons] didn’t explain STEM, and if you got multiple answers wrong, you were forced to rewatch the video, [with no] alternate ways of learning.”
Monet, who was Angel’s half-sibling, witnessed the growth of Acellus firsthand, and while he left the underground in 2008, he still believes in the program’s overall benefits. “Even though [Billings] has some serious flaws, I want it noted he also has done some good, and that program helped a lot of children,” he told OneZero.
In Acellus’ early videos, Billings often stepped into the role of teacher, one person who witnessed the program’s development told OneZero. According to this source, Billings recorded videos in the hope of connecting with current Acellus students and prospective church members. To this day, Billings appears in a weekly “Science L!ve” video promoted on Acellus’ website. “Roger Billings motivates and inspires students of all ages to achieve their best and believe that they can make a difference,” the promotional copy reads.
The recent revelations that Acellus is not just spreading potentially problematic material, but is being used by countless schools across the country, speaks to the program’s evolution over the last 20-odd years.
Alarmed parents have spent months accumulating Acellus content. Screenshots and videos of Acellus lessons compiled this year show a slide asking what “a family” is: a Black woman with her child or two white parents and their child. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, another slide attempts to justify the economics of American slavery. In a video lesson for first graders that was subsequently removed according to the Journal, an Acellus instructor pronounces the letter “G” while holding a toy gun. And a geography question asks which of these four islands comprise Japan: Honolulu, Hickok, Achoo, and Bleshu; Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu; or Shiatsu, Sushi, Haiku, and Kimono?
The Hawaiʻi Department of Education declined to comment on the allegations that Billings is affiliated with a “cult.”
On September 1, following the first slew of stories by local Hawaiʻi outlets, Billings posted a public video on Facebook refuting all claims that Acellus content is racist or sexist. In another video, posted on September 6, Billings blames the “avalanche of negativism” on “modern cancel culture” stemming from a tweet in which he used the term “Make America Great Again.”
In the wake of local and national reports, state governments have been slow to drop the platform. On September 21, California State Superintendent Tony Thurmond notified state schools that schools must meet California's legal requirements around the portrayal of race and ethnicity, gender, religion, and other protected characteristics. “We had had quite a few concerns brought to our attention [about the Acellus program],” a spokesperson for the California Department of Education told OneZero.
“We wanted to make sure that in this time of online learning and a quick pivot to distance learning, [schools understand the] process we have in place [that] places the responsibility on school districts to vet and get community feedback,” the spokesperson added. Thurmond’s letter was “informational in nature,” however, and California educational authorities have not made a hard recommendation against the use of Acellus.
“The content about the Civil War is very, very questionable and leaves out the major reasons we were fighting the war,” an auditor wrote.
Deputy superintendent of the Hawaiʻi Department of Education, Phyllis Unebasami, told Civil Beat that they require “evidence to substantiate the concern” parents have regarding Acellus. “A screenshot as you know can sometimes be old or tampered. If we know the spot the person tells us it’s in, it really helps us a lot,” Unebasami added. The department is now asking parents to report “controversial content” on Acellus and other remote learning tools using a Google Form.
Prior to the Acellus scandal, the platform was reviewed. A copy of the findings, published by Civil Beat, shows a mostly negative evaluation. “The content about the Civil War is very, very questionable and leaves out the major reasons we were fighting the war,” an auditor wrote. “The explanation of slaves failed to say anything about the condition of slaves.”
OneZero found that there appears to be resistance from a few education officials to dropping Acellus altogether, confirming the previous reporting by Civil Beat. OneZero obtained an email from a school principal in Hawaiʻi that said the claims against Acellus were baseless, and had been traced by the company to one of its competitors.
“After receiving numerous parent, school, and community questions and complaints in recent months around issues of questionable and inappropriate content, rigor, alignment to standards, and other areas, the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education initiated a multidisciplinary review of the Acellus Learning Accelerator,” Nanea Kalani, a spokesperson for the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education, told OneZero.
Since the report is currently being finalized, Kalani said its findings could not be released at this time.
Several school principals in Hawaiʻi have gone rogue and opted to stop using the platform entirely.
One Hawaiʻi educator, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, distributed an anonymous survey to parents and teachers, hoping to gather data that might convince Hawaii’s Department of Education to reconsider its relationship with Acellus.
“[My daughter’s] pediatrician is concerned for her mental state being forced to use Acellus and asked me if I considered homeschooling,” a parent responded to the survey.
“The Acellus videos are outdated and really creepy and honestly unprofessional,” a teacher wrote.
OneZero identified dozens of schools across the nation that appear to be using Acellus, according to their websites. This list is by no means comprehensive, but demonstrates the platform’s reach. OneZero contacted 12 schools and school districts regarding Acellus, asking whether they intend to evaluate the product in light of recent reports: California’s Hawthorne School District, Pasadena Unified School District, Tamalpais Union High School District, Pittsburg High School, Golden Plains Unified School District, and Central Union School District; Oregon’s Pendleton School District and Tillamook School District; South Carolina’s Allendale County School District; Nebraska’s North Canton City Schools; Montana’s Jefferson High School; and Alaska’s Yukon-Koyukuk School District.
Only two of the 12 schools responded to requests for comment. Patrick Cahalan, a Pasadena School Board member, told OneZero he was aware of the allegations but had not received objections from parents. “Certainly we would have taken steps in such a case,” Cahalan said.
“I am aware of the controversy around Acellus, but Acellus has addressed these concerns. My district is good.”
In July, South Carolina’s Allendale County School District announced that its virtual academy would be designed using the curriculum offered by Acellus. Margaret Gilmore, the superintendent of Allendale County Schools in South Carolina, told OneZero: “I am aware of the controversy around Acellus, but Acellus has addressed these concerns. My district is good.”
Additionally, OneZero found that one of Acellus’ largest customers appears to be the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education. Between 2008 and 2020, the bureau paid the International Academy of Science $144,125 for software, computers, a lab bundle, and digital textbooks. These products went to schools in Missouri, Arizona, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not respond to OneZero’s multiple requests for comment.
It’s unclear what sort of accreditation Acellus instructors have, who is writing the platform’s lesson plans, where the material is filmed, and whether the curriculum is sourced from a third party.
OneZero asked the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education if instructors on distance learning platforms, such as Acellus, are required to be credentialed just as regular teachers are. “All teachers must be licensed in the subject area and grade level they teach (or if they have an emergency hire permit, they must show they are actively working toward licensure),” Kalani said.
On its website, the International Academy of Science states that Acellus Academy has been accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools & Colleges (ASC WASC), a nonprofit accrediting body that is widely used by K-12 schools.
OneZero viewed a letter sent by ASC WASC to Joshua Billings, Roger’s son and executive director of Acellus Academy, notifying him of the school’s Initial Accreditation Status through June 30, 2021.
President of ACS WASC Barry Groves told OneZero he was familiar with the recent claims of controversial content on Acellus. Groves noted that Acellus Academy, not the Acellus Learning Accelerator, is “in fully accredited status.”
The Hawaiʻi Department of Education also claims that AP courses provided by the Acellus Learning System have been approved by the College Board, a nonprofit organization that reviews college entrance material.
When requested for comment, the College Board initially told OneZero it would comment on its AP course review process but subsequently ignored all requests for comment.
According to the International Academy of Science’s 2017 tax filing, the nonprofit reported $9,771,784 in annual revenue and nearly $17 million in net assets.
In the wake of the Acellus revelations, a number of obscure websites began flooding their homepages with positive stories about Acellus and Billings. “YouTubers say ‘flexibility’ of Acellus Academy works for their sons,” one reads. “Acellus creator Billings: ‘We must recognize the enormous value of the true innovator,’” says another. “Hutchinson teacher says Acellus works for students,” states a third.
The homepage for one of these websites, Aloha State News, exclusively displayed stories about the benefits of Acellus as of October 5. After OneZero emailed Aloha State News for comment, its homepage was updated. Now, only two Acellus stories appear prominently on the homepage.
Metric Media publishes under a licensing agreement with the Metric Media Foundation, a Missouri-based nonprofit corporation, according to business records. In August, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism reported that this network of sites practiced “pink slime journalism” — or “low-cost automated story generation.” According to this report, Metric Media operates hundreds of such domains that could affect search results. Last year, Michigan’s Lansing State Journal reported that one Metric Media publication gave the impression of being a local, nonpartisan outlet while publishing several right-leaning political news stories.
OneZero could not ascertain why so many Acellus stories wound up on these websites in such a short period of time. Neither Aloha State News nor Metric Media responded to OneZero’s emails regarding their Acellus coverage, and attempts to speak to the authors of these stories were unsuccessful.
Their child, one of millions around the country forced to migrate to remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic, would be using Acellus.
“I’m surprised at the amount of influence they’ve managed to get over the years,” Jennifer, the person formerly homeschooled in Billings’ community, said of him and the church. “I had a really hard time finding out about him for a very long time. I didn’t expect Acellus to grow as big as it did.”
One person who spent time living among the Church of Jesus Christ in Zion and in the subterranean compound told OneZero that for many years after they left, they continued to fear being forced back to the community.
Eventually, they had a family. This summer, they made a shocking discovery: Their child, one of millions around the country forced to migrate to remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic, would be using Acellus. The realization triggered memories of past traumatic experiences.
“I was horrified,” they said. “I thought there is no fucking way I am going to let the cult have access to my child’s information or educate my child. I would never give those details to this group. I don’t trust them.”