Only about 350 students have enrolled in the four schools in the desert towns of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, compared with 1,400 last year. Dozens of teachers belonging to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have also quit.
They acted at the direction of Warren Jeffs, who speaks on behalf of his aged father, Rulon Jeffs, the church's prophet. In mid-July, Warren Jeffs ordered followers to take their children out of school and cut off contact with former church members.
Church members said they are taking charge of their children's education and schooling them at home, just like other parents across the country. Other people, particularly former members, said the Jeffs' followers are preparing for the apocalypse their leaders say is at hand.
DeLoy Bateman, a former church member and a science teacher at the Colorado City high school, said church leaders are preaching that the towns will be lifted into heaven with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Around the twin communities, the End of Days is rumored to be either a few days or a few months away.
In a statement issued through their Salt Lake City attorney, the Jeffses said: "The Fundamentalist Church and its officers have not made any predictions in regard to the exact date of the Second Coming. It has long been the teaching of the church that no man knows the hour or the date of that event."
The twin towns were settled in the late 1800s by ranchers who followed the Mormon doctrine of polygamy. In 1890, the mainstream church disavowed the practice of plural marriage under pressure from the federal government, which threatened to refuse Utah statehood if it didn't.
But some people have clung to the practice--among them the fundamentalist sect, founded in 1929--and have been excommunicated by the Mormon Church as a result. Polygamy remains illegal, though it largely goes unpunished, a crime prosecutors say is difficult to prove and usually victimless. Still, members of the sect are wary of outsiders and hostile to those who have broken with the faith.
The Associated Press faxed a dozen questions to church leaders. Two were answered. The rest were ignored.
Church leaders are said to have prophesied several dates for the Second Coming, only to see them come and go. In 1993, Rulon Jeffs told high school graduates not to attend college since the world would end before they could finish, according to Bateman.
Since the start of the school year two weeks ago, many classrooms have been nearly empty. Attendance was down so much at one middle school that authorities closed it and sent the remaining youngsters to another school. Most of the sect's youngsters are being schooled at home instead.
Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, a church member, said the decree issued in July was merely "a suggestion that people take that responsibility for themselves." He started homeschooling his children a year ago.
"I just felt like I could do much better teaching them the things I know and give them some spiritual teaching as well," he said.
In 1942, members signed over ownership of their homes to a trust established by the church, which now has tens of millions of dollars in land and in businesses spread across the West and into Canada.
The two desert towns are modest, with wandering dirt and paved roads lined with houses clad in untreated plywood. Because residents do not own their homes, they cannot borrow the money to improve them. Toys and bikes litter the often grassless yards where children--girls in pigtails and long dresses, boys in jeans and plaid shirts--watch outsiders with suspicion.
Rulon and Warren Jeffs live in large gated homes in Hildale and are said to have dozens of wives.
Lenore Holm, a former member, said Warren Jeffs moved back to Hildale from Salt Lake City about two years ago and has been tightening his grip on the flock, arranging marriages with young women--sometimes as young as 15--and driving those who challenge him, like Holm, out of the church.
"Since Warren moved down, that's when everything went wacko-Waco," Holm said. "It's felt more and more like a cult."
About six months ago, Holm said, she refused to let her 16-year-old daughter become the second wife of a 39-year-old handyman who did work on Warren Jeffs' home. She said the church excommunicated her and is trying to evict her and her 10 children living at home.
"Because we didn't break the laws of Arizona, they want our home and they want our children on the street," Holm said.
Members are told not to talk to family members who leave the church and not to do business with apostates, making it difficult for them to find work.
Church attorney Scott Berry said apostates distort the facts, but he would not comment directly on her allegations.