A federal program designed to provide better opportunities for at-risk youth has been plagued by stunning amounts of crime and violence, according to government reports. The Job Corps program, overseen by the United States Department of Labor, racked up almost 50,000 safety and security incidents in a nearly 10-year span; including homicides, fights, drug-related incidents and more.
A new report from the Government Accountability Office highlights alarming statistics for the program that's considered the country's largest residential, educational, career and technical training program for low-income youth. Between January 2007 and June 2016, Job Corps experienced a total of 49,836 safety and security incidents. The total included 7,616 assaults, 6,073 drug-related incidents, 548 sexual assaults and four homicides on-site at the 125 centers across the country. Cindy Barnes Brown oversaw the GAO's report as the director of the agency's Education, Workforce and Income Security team. In an interview with Circa, she called the stats "alarming."
"One incident, if it involves your child or someone close to you, is too many and that's why they’re in the process of looking at this more closely."
Job Corps generally serves low-income young people between the ages of 16-24. Most have come from challenged backgrounds, including the foster care or group home system. Many are high school drop-outs or experienced some other barrier to their education or job training, like homelessness. Jiron Mitchell, 26, is a former Job Corps student. He told Circa, "Most people want to make the case Job Corps is the last option, it’s only for F-ups and all of this. No, it’s not."
Mitchell says he grew up a kid of the inner city in North Carolina, in group homes. Job Corps was an opportunity. He knew it. But Mitchell admits he got kicked out twice from two different centers. Still, years later, he's on YouTube, preaching to kids just like him. He explains the ins and outs of the program, which he believes can change their lives. His videos have tens of thousands of views.
"Job Corps was my high school. And it could be other peoples' college."
The goal of Job Corps is to provide education and job training for specific trades. Some, including United States Senator Chuck Grassley, have argued the students are getting an education that rivals the streets some of them came from. Circa spoke with Grassley about Job Corps last summer. He told us, "You can see kids beat up. You can see kids murdered, both with guns and machetes. Something isn’t right."
The GAO's new report serves to bolster concerns, pointing out that the majority of the safety and security incidents, more than 38,000, occurred on-site at Job Corps. Additional incidents also occurred on Job Corps sponsored field trips and outings. And if the reported problem wasn't bad enough, Brown indicated the violence and crime is likely worse. Back in 2015, the Office of the Inspector General issued a scathing report saying Job Corps needed to improve enforcement and oversight to better protect students. That report highlighted that some centers were not reporting significant incidents, also calling out what it considered systemic safety weaknesses.
Circa obtained the data from that report, uncovering Job Corps centers dealing with misconduct infractions related to everything from loan sharking to positive drug tests, gang activity to sexual assaults. Senator Grassley said, "Nationwide I can say we ought to be outraged because the Labor Department isn’t doing its job of overseeing a safe learning environment for at-risk kids."
The Labor Department was asked repeatedly to conduct a sit-down interview with Circa - both recently and last summer. A media representative declined. In a statement, the agency said it disagrees with some of the underlying premises of the GAO report but didn't provide specifics when requested. The agency also took issue with a different report from the OIG issued in March of this year. That report pointed out physical security weaknesses at Job Corps sites and indicated law enforcement was not calling in dozens of serious incidents at some centers.
The Labor Department indicated safety and security for Job Corps is a top priority, pointing to changes made starting back in 2015. Among its changes, the agency says it now has a revised Zero Tolerance Student Conduct policy, a new safety and security hotline, a new national criminal background check process and a new student-based safety and security awareness program.
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