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Trying Transition for a Cadet Hopeful
Second-Chance Program's Rigors, Personalities Test D.C. Teen's Mettle

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009

Second of three articles.

Dawn Harvey began to cry as she stood in line to the supply clerk's office.

She had been at the base only a few hours and already had been chewed out in front of everyone for having "a smart mouth."

Harvey was 19, and she was looking to change her life. She had left home at 15, been in trouble with the police for fighting and destruction of property, and dropped out of high school. People told her that she had problems with anger.

She had found this National Guard high school program on the Internet. It seemed perfect. She could get discipline, a diploma and classes in conflict resolution. Plus, it was free. Yet here she was on day one, with her name tag and backpack, and tears running down her face.

Harvey, of Northeast Washington, was one of 170 young women and men from the District and Maryland who last month enrolled in the National Guard's Freestate Challenge Academy at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, Md.

The residential program is designed for at-risk students ages 16 to 19 who have dropped out of high school or may have run afoul of the law. Intense classroom instruction lasts for five months and is followed by a year-long mentoring period.

Rigid regulations and a spartan dress code are enforced by a team of no-nonsense drill instructors. Girls and boys are segregated on separate floors in a brick and cinder block building on the base.

"It's not the Girl Scouts!" one female instructor barked to newly arrived young women.

Nor is it summer camp.

The transition from "the street" to the barracks can be harrowing. "These kids think they're tough," said David Marsh, the academy's lead counselor. But most are not ready for the regimen or the mind-set.

Reveille is at 5:30 a.m. Physical training is constant. There are no TVs, and no cellphones, makeup, jewelry, money or profanity are allowed. Parents are not permitted to visit for eight weeks. Fighting is forbidden. Those who break the rules can be expelled -- "self-inflicted elimination," or SIE, the instructors call it -- and over the past few weeks dozens of applicants were.

Many girls thrived in the rugged initiation period called "Hard Core," while others, like Harvey, struggled -- or failed -- to adjust.

Most had high hopes for the future. Harvey, who was described by her father, Larry Burgess, as extremely smart and an excellent writer, wanted to go to college and be an accountant.

The first goal, however, was reaching Monday's "Crossover" ceremony, in which the Hard Core survivors will be named cadets and then continue with their schooling.

Along the way, though, many grew homesick, or couldn't take the physical and psychological demands. Several -- Harvey among them -- got into fights.

Girls especially seem more prone to fighting than ever, Marsh said, feeling that it's better to strike first before they are struck.

"Each kid has a chip on their shoulder," said Tony Mosely, a coordinator with the D.C. National Guard's Capital Guardian Youth Challenge Academy, which sends District students through the program at Aberdeen. "There's something going on in their lives that got them here."

But last month, as they lined up at supply clerk Cassandra Sallie's office to be issued ball caps and bedsheets, she told the girls not to look so glum. "You're not going to jail," she said. "You're here to get an education."

Harvey and about 40 other male and female candidates arrived July 15, three days after the program began. She looked nervous as she checked in at a base recreation center. "The sooner it gets started, the faster it'll be over," she said.

The other girls were already bonding with their assigned squads, learning to respond: "Here, ma'am. On the way, ma'am," to an instructor's summons, and "Permission to speak, ma'am?" when they wished to ask a question.

Harvey's trouble apparently began on the ride from the recreation center to the barracks building. She said an instructor spoke harshly to her when she asked if she should close the van door.

Instructor Sandra Lewis said Harvey drew further attention when she announced, "I wasn't forced to come here. I came here on my own."

When she arrived at the barracks, several female instructors loudly criticized her and another newcomer for having "a mouth." Instructor Alicia Clark advised the more-seasoned girls: "You all better brief them at bedtime." Their best advice? Just keep quiet.

Harvey said later that she figured they were just testing her. Indeed, the instructors were hollering at all the new girls, as a matter of course. But as she stood tearfully in the supply line, she looked stung and humiliated.

She tried to settle in, and later she said she was enjoying the food, the academics and the physical training.

But two days later, she and another candidate began jostling for the same spot while getting into formation before class. Both became upset. In class, Harvey took a seat beside her antagonist. Program officials said she did so intentionally. Harvey said there were only two seats left in the room.

The dispute resumed and escalated, and a fight erupted. Harvey said that when the other girl straight-armed her, "I hit her." Students broke up the scuffle, and after officials looked into the incident, Harvey was asked to leave the program. The other girl was permitted to stay.

"I may have gotten a little too angry too easily," she said.

She inquired about being reinstated, she said, but the answer was no.

"I know I could have completed the program," she said. "It was a little tough at times. But they're only doing their jobs. It was not like they were asking us to jump off a bridge."

Washington Post videojournalist Whitney Shefte contributed to this report.

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