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NH's Job Corps center gets low safety rank from survey

By TODD FEATHERS
New Hampshire Union Leader

September 22. 2018 8:40PM
Culinary students Joseph Contreras of Nashua, right, and Chase McFarland of Chester are shown working in the kitchen at the New Hampshire Job Corps Center in Manchester in October 2015. (UNION LEADER FILE PHOTO)



MANCHESTER - New Hampshire's Job Corps center ranks as solidly average for student outcomes but near the bottom of the nation's 126 centers in surveys used to judge how safe students feel.

City police have been called to the campus on Dunbarton Road 135 times since it opened in 2015, including 13 times for assaults and four times for sexual assaults so far this year.

But those numbers - driven up by Job Corps policies that require staff to alert the police whenever there is a safety incident - no matter how minor - belie the reality of life at the center, according to program officials, police and students.

"Yeah, there's been a few scraps between students, but that's going to happen everywhere. And when it happens, the security staff does everything in their power to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Sean Keim-Johnston, who worked with the security staff at the center as part of his training before graduating from the program in April.

Student safety has been a lingering issue for Job Corps, a federal program started in 1964 to educate and train low-income students ages 16 to 24 at no cost to themselves.

New Hampshire was the last state to open a Job Corps center. It provides high-school equivalency programs and vocational training in nine trades for 268 residential and 32 non-residential students, according to Adams and Associates, the company that runs the center.

Many of the police calls to the campus since it opened in September 2015 resulted in no report being taken or conclusions that allegations were unfounded, city police Lt. Brian O'Keefe said.

There have been instances in which students fought with each other and were expelled, he said.

Substantiated sexual assaults mostly involved situations like one student slapping another's buttocks - serious matters, but not rising to the level of violence documented at other Job Corps centers.

In recent years, multiple students and staff at different centers have been arrested for murder and rape.

There were 13,673 safety and security incidents - primarily involving drugs and assaults - at Job Corps programs between July 2016 and June 2017, according to a June report from the Government Accountability Office.

During that period, there were 75 incidents at the Manchester site, including 15 violent ones.

"Students in any learning environment must feel safe and secure, which is why I'm concerned by the data reported by GAO," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote in a statement.

First as New Hampshire's governor, then as a senator, Shaheen was instrumental in bringing the program to New Hampshire.

"My office has received the report and is working with Manchester law enforcement, the mayor's office and local Job Corps leadership to review its findings and address the concerns raised," Shaheen wrote.

In multiple reports over the last several years, the GAO and Department of Labor's Office of the Inspector General have called for better security measures at the centers.

Partially in response, all Job Corps centers have zero-tolerance policies for violent infractions, and the rules for any kind of misconduct are stricter than one might expect to find in a high school or other educational setting.

"An assault in New Hampshire at the Job Corps center isn't necessarily what would be classified as an assault in the regular community," said Greg Weber, vice president of human resources and compliance for Adams and Associates. "Even though it may not be an extreme event, we certainly have zero tolerance for that kind of behavior."

Lily Letourneau, a student at the center, said she has witnessed several altercations between students and in nearly every one the offending student was expelled from the program.

Jonathan Leugers, a graduate of the program who went on to work as a correctional officer, said he always thought of the Manchester center as a safe place.

"I think the program is great. For as long as it's been around it's still a relative secret," he said. "There's a ton of youth that probably wouldn't be in the prison system if they knew about Job Corps."

New Hampshire Job Corps graduate Jonathan Leugers, shown at his graduation ceremony in Manchester in December 2016, went on to work as a correctional officer, and says he always thought of the Manchester center as a safe place. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)


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